An experimental global index offers a new measurement of human progress that illustrates the challenge of tackling poverty and inequality while easing planetary pressure.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis facing the world. Still, unless humans release their grip on nature, it won’t be the last, according to the 2020 Human Development Report (HDR) entitled The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, released today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

According to the Report, Malaysia ranks 62nd out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), managed a score of 0.810, which puts it in the “very high” human development category.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Human Development Report. As people and the planet enter an entirely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, it is time for all countries to redesign their paths to progress by fully accounting for the dangerous pressure humans put on the planet and dismantle the gross imbalances of power and opportunity that prevent change. Accordingly, the 2020 Human Development Report includes a new experimental index on human progress that accounts for countries’ carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. 

Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI (PHDI) offers a new measurement of human progress

By adjusting the HDI, which measures a nation’s health, education, and standards of living, to include two more elements: a country’s carbon dioxide emissions and its material footprint, the index shows how the global development landscape would change if both the wellbeing of people and also the planet were central to defining humanity’s progress. 

With the resulting Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI—or PHDI—a new global picture emerges, painting a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress. For example, more than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint.  

The top three HDI countries in the region—Singapore (0.938), Brunei (0.838), and Malaysia (0.810)—score much lower on the PHDI (0.656, 0.672, and 0.699, respectively) due to high dependence on hydrocarbons, and industries focused on importing, refining, and exporting oil.

Despite these adjustments, countries at lower stages of development have much smaller score reductions—with Thailand and Philippines having the highest PHDI scores for the region. Countries like Costa Rica, Moldova, and Panama move upwards by at least 30 places, recognizing that lighter pressure on the planet is possible.

Photo credit: UNDP Malaysia

Niloy Banerjee: Transformational change is required to ease pressures on the planet and redress social imbalances

UNDP Malaysia Country Office held the national launch of the report on December 16, 2020 at the Marriott hotel, Putrajaya, with 190 member audience members who participated virtually.

In his welcoming remarks, Niloy Banerjee, UNDP Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, emphasized that the Human Development Index was created as a tool to help the public and political debate around development progress by encouraging countries to measure their progress against a metric that is wider than income. The HDI includes measurement of achievement in population’s average longevity (as a proxy for health), education, and income. 

The event was officiated by YB Khairy bin Jamaluddin, Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, followed by a presentation of the Report’s key messages and presentation of country-specific results by Dr. Haniza Khalid, Senior Development Economist at UNDP Malaysia. 

“COVID-19 is a wake-up call about human development and trajectory. We have developed great capacity to shape the world and to shape our future. The question is what we will make of this capacity together.” Khairy said.  


Achim Steiner: No country has achieved “very high” development without putting immense strain on the planet.  

During the global launch of the report on Wednesday, hosted by the Government of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden said, “The Human Development Report is an important product by the United Nations. In a time where action is needed, the new generation of Human Development Reports, with greater emphasis on the defining issues of our time such as climate change and inequalities, helps us to steer our efforts towards the future we want”.

The report lays out a stark choice for world leaders—take bold steps to reduce the immense pressure that is being exerted on the environment and the natural world, or humanity’s progress will stall. “Humans wield more power over the planet than ever before. In the wake of COVID-19, record-breaking temperatures and spiralling inequality, it is time to use that power to redefine what we mean by progress, where our carbon and consumption footprints are no longer hidden,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. 

“As this report shows, no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet. But we could be the first generation to right this wrong. That is the next frontier for human development,” he said.

The Report argues that as the world confront the Anthropocene, transformational change is required to ease pressures on the planet and redress social imbalances. To achieve this, there must once again be an ambitious reorientation of goals and choices. 

During the event in Putrajaya, two panel discussions were conducted, touching on (i) how Malaysia can create lasting changes to ensure that our development path does not adversely impact the planet and (ii) catalytic actions that bridge the gap between peoples’ values and behaviour with regards to the environment.

In the first panel discussion, panellist Dr. Jomo K S., Senior Adviser of Khazanah Research Institute, said that human have framed human science and progress as mastery over nature. “This is a fundamental problem, and we need a different appreciation and understanding of what science, society, and human progress is about. We need a more ethical view that includes nature in the way we articulate progress.” he said.

In the following panel discussion, Prof. Leong Choon Heng, Deputy Director of Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, emphasized the need to draw on our knowledge about collective behaviour. “Small cohesive groups are better able to influence behaviour than large groups. We need to mobilise many small groups for sustainability action.” he added.

According to a poll survey carried out during the virtual forums,  67% of respondents believe that climate change is a larger threat to achieving the desired level human development in Malaysia by 2030 compared to COVID-19; 71% of participants agree that pursuing environmental sustainability will contribute to advancing social equality.

Regarding Malaysia’s efforts to promote environmental health, only 10% of participants reckon that Malaysia is doing well on planetary sustainability while 50% of participants think that Malaysia is doing somewhat poorly. 

UNDP: Three mechanisms for collective change

Photo credit: Human Development Report Office

The 2020 Human Development Report recommends creating real, lasting change, building upon the nexus between People, Prosperity, and Planet. Specifically, UNDP calls for three mechanisms for collective change:  

  • Nature-based solutions: UNDP through the Climate Promise initiative now supports 115 governments across 17 thematic areas, the most popular area being climate finance and investment. In Malaysia, UNDP supports the government towards strengthening the evidence and climate data for greater transparency in NDC implementation, as well as securing political and societal ownership for climate actions. 
  • Incentives and regulation: According to IMF (2015), the world spent an estimated $5 trillion a year on publicly financed subsidies for fossil fuels—this is a staggering 6.5 per cent of global GDP, causing the escalating GHG emissions. As with most market failures, the best way to effect change is to alter the incentives driving everyday decision-making—in this instance, producers, consumers, and investors’ carbon-intensive economic choices. A critical instrument to do so is to shift the post-tax relative price of coal and other fossil fuels using regulatory, tax, and institutional instruments to reflect factors that are currently not (entirely) priced in. 
  • Social norms and values: As we seek to empower people through human development, the world must also establish new norms that give greater weight to planetary balance and sustainability. Ensuring access to quality education with sustainability woven deeply into the school curricula. Life-long learning opportunities are also crucial for enhancing knowledge about the planet and the value of nature. 

As we come to the end of a year that has defied all expectations, we must understand 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.  

To learn more about the 2020 Human Development Report and UNDP’s analysis on the experimental Planetary Pressures-Adjusted HDI, visit

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