Trevor Hancock: Canada's heavy ecological footprint hurts its human-development ranking

Last week, I quoted from a Dec. 2 speech by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the state of the planet. It made for grim reading, but it is the reality we need to face.

Mr. Guterres did not end on a pessimistic note, however. Instead, he pointed to many indications of opportunity and hope. He concluded: “We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path.… Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world — and with each other.”

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One recent UN report helps us chart this new course, in part by addressing one of the challenges Mr. Guterres noted: “More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product, in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives.”

The UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report began in 1990 “precisely as a counterpoint to myopic definitions of development,” as the 2020 report puts it.

Specifically, it offers the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to the GDP, one grounded in human rather than economic development, reminding us that “economic growth is more means than end.”

Human development, says the 2020 report, “is about empowering people to identify and pursue their own paths for a meaningful life, one anchored in expanding freedoms.”

The HDI has three main components: education, health and income per person. The first two represent basic capabilities that are key to people enjoying a high level of human development, while the income component is intended to reflect “command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living” by acquiring other key requirements, such as shelter and food.

The income component of the HDI has been particularly problematic from a sustainable-development perspective. Having more income is very important in low-income countries, where a bit more income can “buy” a lot more human development, both at a personal level and in terms of the country being able to afford universal education and basic health care and meet other basic needs.

But that is not the case in high-income countries, where having more income not only may not increase human development much but — because those countries have big ecological footprints — may actually harm human development by increasing ecological harm.

Over time, the HDI has been revised to include measurements of inequality and gender disparity, and indeed, the 2019 report focused on inequalities in the HDI. Troublingly, perhaps because it is focused on nation states, the report did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. This — and the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature around the world — are issues I will return to in my next column.

But I want to focus on the 2020 Human Development Report, entitled Human Development and the Anthropocene. Not only are we “destabilizing the planetary systems we rely on for survival,” the report notes, but social strains due to inequality and the strain on our planet “reinforce each other, amplifying the challenges.”

For the first time, the HDI is adjusted for “planetary pressures” — the impact countries have on Earth’s biocapacity and resources. Specifically, the index is adjusted to take into account both a country’s carbon emissions and its “material footprint” per person, the latter reflecting the use of materials (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores) for domestic consumption.

So where is Canada on this scale? Well, in 2019, we ranked 16th in the world for HDI. But once our HDI is adjusted for the planetary pressures we create, it declines 22 per cent and we fall to 56th place, which is a poor performance compared to most of the 66 countries in the “Very high HDI” group.

While Canada’s ranking is a bit better than the U.S. and quite a bit better than Australia, we are way behind the countries of Western Europe, which, with New Zealand, occupy the top 10 positions.

The challenge we face is to become a “One Planet” country with a high HDI and a low ecological footprint — and soon.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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