Inequality puts enormous pressure on man and the planet

The COVID-19 pandemic has come to highlight the disrupted relationship between humans and the planet. This is why we need to work with nature, not against it, as a matter of urgency, according to the 30th Human Development Report (HDR). The inordinate inequality must also be addressed. The HDR also proposes a new development index that factors in the pressure on the planet. The Belgian Development Co-operation welcomes the report.

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For 30 years now, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) - an important partner of the Belgian Development Co-operation - has faithfully produced an annual Human Development Report (HDR). The report contains, among others, a 'human development index' (HDI): a single figure that reflects how good life is in a given country. That figure is calculated on the basis of the level of education, healthcare, standard of living and so on. 

The Human Development Index was created in 1990 as a counter-reaction to the widely-used Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  This too is a single figure, but it only refers to the economic situation of a country and says nothing about the quality of life.

Human Development Report 2020, The next frontier, Human development and the Anthropocene #HDR2020


Thirty years later, we live in a completely different world.  Today, hardly anyone has any doubts about the fact that human development has an enormous impact on nature.  This is apparent in the disruption to the climate, the painful loss of biodiversity and the omnipresent pollution.  There is literally not a single spot on this planet that has not been touched by human activity.  That is why the term 'anthropocene' - a new geological era dominated by humans - was straight away included in the title of the 30th HDR.

The all-important message is that human development on the one hand and nature on the other are inseparable.  "Our future is not a question of choosing between people or trees," says UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner in his foreword.  "It is both or neither."

Index tailored to take planetary pressures into account

The report therefore proposes a new index: a Planetary pressures-adjusted Human Development Index (PHDI). In other words, an index that maps the pressure on the planet.  It uses two indicators for this: CO2 emissions and the ecological footprint per capita.

And that yields surprising results.  More than 50 countries are excluded from the group of countries with very high human development because of the PHDI.  This suggests that they are highly dependent on fossil fuels and have a large footprint. In contrast, countries such as Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama rise at least 30 places in the PHDI.  This demonstrates that putting less pressure on the planet is quite feasible.  

In comparison with other very highly developed countries, Belgium's impact is quite limited.  Our country is in 14th place of the HDI (last year it was 17th), and even moves to the 10th for the PHDI.

Nature is the foundation of human progress - not a contraint. #HDR2020


The report paints a bleak picture of the planet and human activities. For example, it is well known that burning fossil fuels emits a lot of CO2.  Yet, governments continue to subsidise fossil fuels with 5 trillion dollars a year, 6.5% of the global GDP.  

Striking is the emphasis on inequality, both within and between countries.  This inequality leads to those who own more to reap the benefits of nature while they export its costs (deforestation, climate disruption, etc.).  These costs then land on the shoulders of the poor.  Which, in turn, impedes their ability to improve their standard of living and to live in harmony with nature.  In short, inequality brings more pressure to bear on the planet, and vice versa.  

For example, by 2100, the poorest countries are said to have to endure 100 extra days of extreme weather annually, whereas the rich countries would have 18 days less.  If the Paris Climate Agreement were to be fully implemented, that number could be halved.

The report makes a series of proposals for tackling the problems: reforestation and sustainable forest management, forest agriculture, a circular economy, investment in good education, good healthcare and higher standards of living, adequate funding (away from fossil fuels), etc.  What matters is that the fight against inequality is central. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, for example, who take care of their environment, must be much better supported and protected against threats.

Ultimately, the gross imbalances of power opportunities must be dismantled so that every human being can flourish, within the planet's constraints.


The Belgian Development Cooperation welcomes the report, which also contains a number of relevant findings for our country. After all, for Belgium too, climate disruption is this generation's biggest challenge.  "The relationship that we, as humans, have with our natural environment must be reviewed," says Development Cooperation Minister Kitir in her policy statement.  "Climate change is real today, but even more tangible for those who already live in precarious conditions, who see their crops destroyed by drought or who have to watch their cattle die."

Inequality is also a major concern of the minister.  "Inequality threatens us all," she says.  "The more unequal a society is, the higher the risk of economic instability, corruption, crime, ..." That is why Belgium pleads with its partners for an increase in income for the poorest and for the inclusion of vulnerable groups.  Our country is also committed to supporting its partner countries in their fight against climate disruption. These priorities have become already concrete through new specific programmes against climate disruption in the Sahel and for social protection in Central Africa.