(December 2011) The United Nations Development Programme's 2011 Human Development Report examines the relationship between environmental degradation and inequality. Environmental challenges increase inequality, while inequalities in human development such as income, health, and education can further strain the environment. The report measures poverty with the Human Development Index (HDI), a multidimensional measure that takes in account access to health care, education, and income levels worldwide. Each country has a HDI "score," categorized into groupings of Very High, High, Medium, and Low.

The report acknowledges that enormous progress has been made in global human development over the past few decades, as millions have escaped extreme poverty and overall health and education measures have increased. But there are significant caveats to this progress: Economic growth has been tied to environmental deterioration; income distribution is more unequal at the country level even as health and education gaps shrink; and empowerment has not risen as equally as has the HDI.

Double Burden for the Poor and Poorest Countries

The poorest populations in the poorest countries face a double environmental burden: They are more vulnerable to wider environmental challenges such as climate change but they also must cope with immediate environmental problems like indoor air pollution and inadequate drinking water and sanitation.

The effects of environmental degradation on projected future HDIs of poorer countries makes this link clear. The report examined the effects of both "environmental challenges" (adverse effects from global warming on agriculture, pollution, and access to water and sanitation) and "environmental disasters" (vast deforestation and land degradation, extreme weather, and decline in biodiversity). The base case, which assumes limited changes in inequality and no major environmental threats and risks, predicts a global HDI that is 19 percent higher than today, and 44 percent higher for sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. But when taking into account environmental challenges, global HDI is predicted to be 8 percent lower. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa's will be 12 percent lower by 2050 under the environmental challenge scenario and 15 percent lower under the environmental disaster scenario. Very high-HDI countries will see a relatively small decline in their HDI while the lowest HDI countries—countries that contribute the least to climate change—will face the biggest challenges under the two future environmental scenarios.

Effects of Environmental Degradation on Health and Education

Environmental risks to the poorest populations vary by human development level. The poor in low-HDI countries tend to face household environmental deprivations such as indoor air pollution and inadequate sanitation and drinking water. Those in rising economies tend to face environmental risks with localized effects such as urban air pollution. In high-HDI countries, on the other hand, environmental risks such as greenhouse gas emissions tend to have global effects, and rise with the HDI.

These environmental factors lead to wide-ranging risks to human health and education. For example, indoor air pollution kills 11 times more people in low-HDI countries than other countries; and environmental-related diseases like acute respiratory infections and diarrhea resulting from dirty water and sanitation kill 3 million children under 5 each year. The use of modern stoves and indoor plumbing could save time from collecting firewood and water and allow more time for children to attend school.

Promising Approaches

Concerted efforts in policy and program design in various countries have successfully integrated environmental and equity and promoted human development. The 2011 report highlights win-win strategies in energy, water, and sanitation that benefit the poor and improve the environment. For example, in West Bengal, India, an international NGO partnered with a local university to develop locally made, cheap water filters. In Cambodia, the Sanitation Marketing Pilot Project used market incentives to spread the use of safe sanitation by providing businesses with household "easy latrine" packages that could be sold for a profit. In these local examples, however, the challenge is to scale up to the national level for broader change.

The report makes it clear that family planning is a crucial component to environmental sustainability, noting that satisfying unmet need for family planning for 2050 would lower the world's carbon emissions by 17 percent. Family planning is not only a necessity for women's health and empowerment, and child health, but also has effects on the environment by slowing population growth and reducing resource consumption and pressure.


Eric Zuehlke is web communications manager at PRB.