Increasing evidence points to widespread environmental degradation around the world and potential future deterioration. Because the extent of future changes is uncertain, we explore a range of predictions and consider the insights for human development.
Our starting point, and a key theme of the 2010 HDR, is the enormous progress in human development over the past several decades—with three caveats:
Simulations for the Report suggest that by 2050 the global HDI would be 8 percent lower than in the baseline in an “environmental challenge” scenario that captures the adverse effects of global warming on agricultural production, on access to clean water and improved sanitation and on pollution (and 12 percent lower in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). Under an even more adverse “environmental disaster” scenario, which envisions vast deforestation and land degradation, dramatic declines in biodiversity and accelerated extreme weather events, the global HDI would be some 15 percent below the projected baseline.
Figure 2 illustrates the scale of the losses and risks our grandchildren will face if we do nothing to halt or reverse current trends. The environmental disaster scenario leads to a turning point before 2050 in developing countries— their convergence with rich countries in HDI achievements begins to reverse.
These projections suggest that in many cases the most disadvantaged people bear and will continue to bear the repercussions of environmental deterioration, even if they contribute little to the problem. For example, low HDI countries have contributed the least to global climate change, but they have experienced the greatest loss in rainfall and the greatest increase in its variability (figure 3), with implications for agricultural production and livelihoods.
Emissions per capita are much greater in very high HDI countries than in low, medium and high HDI countries combined because of more energy-intensive activities— driving cars, cooling and heating homes and businesses, consuming processed and packaged food. The average person in a very high HDI country accounts for more than four times the carbon dioxide emissions and about twice the methane and nitrous oxide emissions of a person in a low, medium or high HDI country— and about 30 times the carbon dioxide emissions of a person in a low HDI country. The average UK citizen accounts for as much greenhouse gas emissions in two months as a person in a low HDI country generates in a year. And the average Qatari— living in the country with the highest per capita emissions— does so in only 10 days, although that value reflects consumption as well as production that is consumed elsewhere.
While three-quarters of the growth in emissions since 1970 comes from low, medium and high HDI countries, overall levels of greenhouse gases remain much greater in very high HDI countries. And this stands without accounting for the relocation of carbon-intensive production to poorer countries, whose output is largely exported to rich countries.
Around the world rising HDI has been associated with environmental degradation— though the damage can be traced largely to economic growth. Contrast the first and third panels of figure 4. The first shows that countries with higher incomes generally have higher carbon dioxide emissions per capita. But the third shows no association between emissions and the health and education components of the HDI. This result is intuitive: activities that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are those linked to the production of goods, not to the provision of health and education. These results also show the nonlinear nature of the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions per capita and HDI components: little or no relationship at low HDI, but as the HDI rises a “tipping point” is reached, beyond which appears a strong positive correlation between carbon dioxide emissions and income.
Countries with faster improvements in the HDI have also experienced faster increases in carbon dioxide emissions per capita. These changes over time— rather than the snapshot relationship— highlight what to expect tomorrow as a result of development today. Again, income changes drive the trend.
But these relationships do not hold for all environmental indicators. Our analysis finds only a weak positive correlation between the HDI and deforestation, for example. Why do carbon dioxide emissions differ from other environmental threats? We suggest that where the link between the environment and quality of life is direct, as with pollution, environmental achievements are often greater in developed countries; where the links are more diffuse, performance is much weaker. Looking at the relationship between environmental risks and the HDI, we observe three general findings:
The HDI itself is not the true driver of these transitions. Incomes and economic growth have an important explanatory role for emissions— but the relationship is not deterministic either. And complex interactions of broader forces change the risk patterns. For example, international trade allows countries to outsource the production of goods that degrade the environment; large-scale commercial use of natural resources has different impacts than subsistence exploitation; and urban and rural environmental profiles differ. And as we will see, policies and the political context matter greatly.
It follows that the patterns are not inevitable. Several countries have achieved significant progress both in the HDI and in equity and environmental sustainability. In line with our focus on positive synergies, we propose a multidimensional strategy to identify countries that have done better than regional peers in promoting equity, raising the HDI, reducing household indoor air pollution and increasing access to clean water and that are top regional and global performers in environmental sustainability (table 1). Environmental sustainability is judged on greenhouse gas emissions, water use and deforestation. The results are illustrative rather than indicative because of patchy data and other comparability issues. Just one country, Costa Rica, outperforms its regional median on all the criteria, while the three other top performers display unevenness across dimensions. Sweden is notable for its high reforestation rate compared with regional and global averages.
Our list shows that across regions, development stages and structural characteristics countries can enact policies conducive to environmental sustainability, equity and the key facets of human development captured in the HDI. We review the types of policies and programmes associated with success while underlining the importance of local conditions and context.
Adverse environmental factors are expected to boost world food prices 30–50 percent in real terms in the coming decades and to increase price volatility, with harsh repercussions for poor households. The largest risks are faced by the 1.3 billion people involved in agriculture, fishing, forestry, hunting and gathering. The burden of environmental degradation and climate change is likely to be disequalizing across groups— for several reasons:
To the extent that women in poor countries are disproportionately involved in subsistence farming and water collection, they face greater adverse consequences of environmental degradation. Many indigenous peoples also rely heavily on natural resources and live in ecosystems especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as small island developing states, arctic regions and high altitudes. Evidence suggests that traditional practices can protect natural resources, yet such knowledge is often overlooked or downplayed.
The effects of climate change on farmers’ livelihoods depend on the crop, region and season, underlining the importance of indepth, local analysis. Impacts will also differ depending on household production and consumption patterns, access to resources, poverty levels and ability to cope. Taken together, however, the net biophysical impacts of climate change on irrigated and rainfed crops by 2050 will likely be negative— and worst in low HDI countries.