/ 20 December 2020

The ‘warning lights flash red’ for Earth

France Environment Paris Pollution
What we have done: The Eiffel Tower in Paris seen through a haze of pollution. The European Commission is taking France to court for defying air pollution limits for more than a decade. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

Humans have achieved incredible things in the past century but they have also taken the Earth to the brink, says Achim Steiner, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

Scientists have long warned of a pandemic caused by the rise in zoonotic pathogens (pathogens that jump from animals to humans) as a reflection of the pressures people put on the planet, Steiner writes in a new UNDP report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene. 

“Climate change, rupturing inequalities, record numbers of people forced from their homes by conflict and crisis — these are the results of societies that value what they measure instead of measuring what they value.”

These pressures, Steiner notes, have become so great that scientists are considering whether the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene (the age of humans). 

“It means that we are the first people to live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves.”

The Anthropocene signifies that for “the first time in our history the most serious and immediate, even existential, risks are human made and unfolding at planetary scale”, according to the report.

The “warning lights — for our societies and the planet — are flashing red”, with the pandemic “the latest harrowing consequence of imbalances writ large. Unless we relax our grip on nature, it will not be the last virus.

“Numerous experts believe we are living through, or on the cusp of, a mass species extinction event, the sixth in the history of the Earth and the first to be caused by a single organism — us,” says the report.

Although humanity has made the planet “safer” for itself, this has come at a monumental price: depleting resources, killing biodiversity, pollution and in so doing straining its capacity to support humans. 

“We have added hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere since industrialisation — we currently add at least 36 billion tonnes a year — progressively heating the planet, producing stronger storms, with extreme and erratic weather, sea level rise, melting ice caps, heatwaves and wildfires, all of which directly threaten the safety of humans or the ecosystems we rely on.”

The report adjusts the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures a nation’s health, education and standards of living, to include two more elements: its carbon dioxide emissions and its material footprint, which will show how the development landscape would change if the wellbeing of the people and that of the Earth were central to defining humanity’s progress. 

Using these two elements to measure HDI, more than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group. Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama move up the index by at least 30 places, which means “that lighter pressure on the planet is possible”, the report finds.

No country has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the Earth.

South Africa’s HDI is ranked 114 out of 189 countries. “So [it’s] a very low rank for an emerging economy if you compare to other emerging economies like China at 85, Brazil at 84, Costa Rica at 62 and Russia at 52,” says Belinda Reyers, research chair in sustainability science at Future Africa at the University of Pretoria, and a contributor and reviewer of the UNDP report.

“Taking last year and this year’s reports together point out that our development levels are severely compromised by both inequality and high environmental impacts in our development,” she says. 

South Africa’s future development prospects, Reyers says, will have to contend with the effects of climate change, new pandemics, water and air pollution and rising food insecurity.

Steiner says the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is “choking” opportunities for the people who have less. “The actions of an indigenous person in the Amazon … offsets the equivalent of the carbon emissions of a person in the richest one percent of people in the world. Yet indigenous people continue to face hardship, persecution and discrimination.

“Four thousand generations could live and die before the carbon dioxide released from the Industrial Revolution to today is scrubbed from our atmosphere, and yet decision-makers continue to subsidise fossil fuels, prolonging our carbon habit like a drug running through the economy’s veins.”

Although the world’s richest countries could experience up to 18 fewer days of extreme weather a year in our lifetime, the poorest countries face up to 100 extra days of extreme weather. 

That number could be cut in half if the Paris Agreement on climate change is fully implemented, says Steiner.

If people have the power to create an entirely new geological epoch, then people also have the power to choose to change by, for example, stopping fossil fuel subsidies, cutting food waste and reforestation measures.

“We are not the last generation of the Anthropocene; we are the first to recognise it,” he says.

“Will we be remembered by the fossils we leave behind: swaths of species, long extinct, sunken and fossilised in the mud alongside plastic toothbrushes and bottle caps, a legacy of loss and waste? Or will we leave a much more valuable imprint: balance between people and planet, a future that is fair and just?”

The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees, says Pedro Conceição, the report’s lead author. “It’s about recognising, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course.”

The Anthropocene, says Reyers, is the “new hyperconnected, rapidly changing and intertwined world in which we live, where a change made in one part of the world ripples quickly across scales with impacts that land in far distant places in quite unexpected and often unfair ways. 

“We have only to look at the current coronavirus pandemic and its cross-scale social-ecological entanglements to get a sense of this new reality — of life in the Anthropocene. 

“Nowhere is this more evident than now in South Africa as we witness the effects of the pandemic … having devastating impacts on the social imbalances and vulnerabilities in our country.”