UN Report Warns of Threat to Human Progress from Climate Change

The UN report says markets are weak on sustainability and cause environmental disasters such as the 2007 mud flow caused by natural gas drilling which forced thousands to flee their homes in Java, Indonesia. (Photograph: Fully Handoko/EPA)

UN Report Warns of Threat to Human Progress from Climate Change

Human development report says inaction on climate change puts at risk decades of progress on education and health

The United Nations warned today that a continued failure to tackle climate change was putting at risk decades of progress in improving the lives of the world's poorest people.

In its annual flagship report on the state of the world, the UN said unsustainable patterns of consumption and production posed the biggest challenge to the anti-poverty drive.

"For human development to become truly sustainable, the close link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions needs to be severed," the UN said in its annual human development report (HDR).

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the HDR said the past two decades had seen "substantial progress" in human development despite the impact of the financial crisis, which had resulted in 34 million people losing their jobs and an additional 64 million people dropping below the $1.25 a day income poverty threshold.

"Most people are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services. Even in countries facing adverse economic conditions, people's health and education have greatly improved."

The HDR assesses progress by using three main measures of well-being - income, life expectancy and education - to compile a human development index (HDI). Since the early 1990s, the HDI has increased by 18%, with only three countries - the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe - having lower human development than 20 years ago.

"There has been massive progress over time if you look beyond income to education and health," said Jeni Klugman, director of the Human Development Report office. "On empowerment, it is a positive story as the number of people living in democracies is up. On the equality side the story is less good."

Klugman pointed to positive developments in countries such as Nepal, where infant mortality has come down from shockingly high levels, and Ethiopia where access to schooling has shot up. Other African countries that have seen significant improvements in the Human Development Index included Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda.

But Klugman warned of the dangers posed by climate change. "There are risks and threats. Climate change is the big one and it could derail progress. That's why the 2011 report will look at the issue of sustainability."

The UN said that on one estimate, the adverse effects of climate change on grain yields would push prices up, more than doubling the price of wheat. In a worst case scenario, the report added, by 2050 per capita consumption of cereals would fall by a fifth, leaving 25 million additional children malnourished, with South Asia the worst affected.

"Climate change may be the single factor that makes the future very different, impeding the continuing progress in human development that history would lead us to expect. While international agreements have been difficult to achieve and policy responses have been generally slow, the broad consensus is clear: climate change is happening, and it can derail human development.

Overall, the UN said poor countries had been closing the human development gap with rich countries over the past two decades, particularly in health and education. The countries reporting the slowest progress were those in sub-Saharan Africa struck by the HIV epidemic and parts of the former Soviet Union suffering increased adult mortality.

The UN said it was striking that the top 10 list of fast improvers contained several countries not typically described as top performers - such as Morocco and Algeria. Ethiopia came 11th, with three other sub-Saharan African countries (Botswana, Benin and Bukina Faso) in the top 25.

Over the past 40 years, a quarter of developing countries saw their HDI increase less than 20%, another quarter more than 65%. The UN said that half of this disparity was the result of different starting points, but added that countries with "similar starting points experience remarkably different evolutions, suggesting that country factors such as policies, institutions and geography are important".

Asia's fastest growing economies - China, Indonesia and South Korea - were among the countries that had showed the greatest progress in improving their HDI, but the UN said the top 10 also included Nepal, Oman and Tunisia where progress in the non-income dimensions of human development had been equally remarkable.

"The divide between developed and developing countries persists: a small subset of countries has remained at the top of the world income distribution, and only a handful of countries that started out poor have joined that high-income group", the report said. "The gap in human development across the world, while narrowing, remains huge."

Championing the role of governments in human development, the report said that markets were generally "very bad at ensuring the provision of public goods, such as security, stability, health and education.

"For example, firms that produce cheap labour-intensive goods or that exploit natural resources may not want a more educated workforce and may care little about their workers' health if there is an abundant pool of labour. Without complementary societal and state action, markets can be weak on environmental sustainability, creating the conditions for environmental degradation, even for such disasters as mud flows in Java and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico."

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