Viruses can jump from animal to human, and around the world in a heartbeat. Factory emissions can contribute to wildfires a hemisphere away. Plastic dropped on a city street can clog waterways and threaten sea life on a distant shore. Every bit of warming poses an existential threat to Bhutan. The country’s glaciers are retreating at an alarming speed due to warming temperature. They risk triggering what Bhutanese glaciologists aptly describe as the ‘Himalayan Tsunami’.  Climate change is also impacting the agriculture sector, affecting the livelihoods of more than half of the country’s 700,000 plus population. 

These are snapshots of the new geological age we are living in – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans – whereby humans have fundamentally changed the planetary systems needed for the survival of life on Earth.

The devastation caused by COVID-19 is the latest warning that humanity has reached a precipice. Despite its titanic impact on human development, the pandemic can also be an opportunity to choose a different route, one where the power humans wield over the planet is used to regenerate, not destroy. 

The latest Human Development Report, launched globally on 15 December, argues that we need nothing short of a great transformation to flourish in the next frontier of human progress. This starts by rejecting the idea that we must choose between people and trees. It is neither or both, because human development at the expense of the planet is not development at all.

To illustrate this, the report introduces a new experimental lens to its Human Development Index (HDI), which for the last 30 years has measured countries’ health, education, and standard of living. 

By adding two new metrics – carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint – the new index shows how the global development landscape changes when you consider the wellbeing of people alongside planetary pressures. 

The results are stark: no country is currently achieving very high human development without straining planetary systems. In the South Asia region, no country is in the very high Human Development group; three are high, five medium and one in the low human development group. South Asia’s planetary pressure adjusted HDI (PHDI) is only 3% less than its HDI. This difference is lower than the world average (7.3%), and the developing countries average (5.5%).  

Bhutan’s HDI value for 2019 is 0.654— which puts the country in the medium human development category—positioning it at 129 out of 189 countries and territories. However, its PHDI is 4.6% less than HDI. The difference is slightly higher than that of South Asia but less than average of the developing countries. This means that Bhutan can be doing more as the world’s only carbon negative nation.

It is up to all countries, rich and poor, to rethink their development path. This requires going beyond discrete solutions to individual problems and instead focusing on mechanisms that will transform how we live, work, eat, interact and, most of all, how we consume energy. 

For starters, that means working with and not against nature. There is huge potential in actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems. Ventures like coastal management, reforestation, and urban green spaces can benefit both the natural world and local communities.

In pursuit of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has lived in harmony with nature for decades, thanks to its successive visionary monarchs who prized environmental conservation over economic gains. However, as the winds of change sweep the world and the country, pursuing an economic growth without putting negative pressure on the planet will be a challenging balancing act, if not managed carefully with anticipation and consciousness. Bhutan, as the world’s climate and environmental champion, has lessons to offer to the global community as many governments try to pursue a green recovery from the crisis. 

Bhutan’s recent investment in renewable energy other than hydropower is a much-awaited move that will also help bolster its green recovery from the ongoing pandemic. The pilot solar farm initiative to which UNDP is a humble partner will not only help Bhutan diversify its energy sources but also prove to be catalytic in spurring more of such green initiatives. 

Ongoing efforts to switch to low-emission urban transport is key to addressing growing concerns over emissions in the transportation sector. Increasing number of cars are clogging roads and polluting the country’s once pristine air. The UNDP-supported electric vehicle project, which aims to replace 300 fossil fuelled taxis with electric cars, aims to demonstrate the incentives and urgency of embracing a green transport system.   

Bhutan is also promoting, through its climate projects, climate-resilient farming practices and integrate biodiversity conservation into its tourism sector. These are all indispensable to achieving the high human development and low planetary pressure- ‘a magic combination’ that this Human Development Report advocates for in moving forward.

There is also a need to change social norms and values to better balance people and the planet. This year has demonstrated how quickly entrenched behaviours can change when driven by necessity, whether on mask wearing or social distancing. In just a generation, a similar movement has happened on issues ranging from violence against women and girls, women’s reproductive rights, stigma around HIV/AIDS, recycling, plastic bags to name a few. 

In Bhutan, the drive to establish new social norms that give greater weight to planetary balance and sustainability is not new. Several initiatives have been rolled out in key sectors recently, providing the much-needed impetus to the country’s continuing efforts to change human behaviours and attitudes. One such initiative is tackling waste management, another growing concern that is not only impacting the environment and public health, but also prospects for high-end tourism. Together with the National Environment Commission, we are working on behavioural insights experimentation to bring about transformational changes.

Finally, incentives are essential tools to bridge the gap between behaviour and values. The right policies and regulations have a role to play and can pay dividends with lasting impacts. For example, rethinking government subsidies for fossil fuels, which are estimated to directly and indirectly cost societies over US$5 trillion a year, or 6.5 percent of global GDP. 

However, the main barriers to necessary transformations are inequalities – of both power and opportunity – within and between countries. The strain on our planet mirrors and reinforces the strain facing many of our societies. Inequalities among people are both a cause and a consequence of the strains we are placing on the planet.  And the gross imbalances of power are the major obstacle in the way of finding solutions.

As we come to the end of a year that has defied all expectations, it must be understood that the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning sign of what is to come. It is time to consider what the story of this new frontier will be. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene, and the choices made today will decide the future for all those to come. 

Contributed by 

Azusa Kubota

Resident Representative, UNDP Bhutan

Note: The official launch of the 2020 Human Development ‘The next frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene’ in Bhutan will take place in mid-January.