the next frontier

The story of how humans are changing Planet Earth

Thirty years ago, UNDP was a part of creating a new way to understand and measure human progress.

Working with leading economists Mahbub Ul Haq and Amartya Sen we decided to switch out economic growth as the primary measure of  country’s progress, instead focusing on whether people in that country had the freedom and opportunity to live a life of value. 

As a result the first Human Development Report (HDR) was born, and it placed education and health alongside living standards to create a more rounded picture of a country’s development:
it looked not just at the economy, but at the wellbeing of those who lived there.  

Thirty years later we have a new understanding of the great challenges we face.  While the, devastating effects of COVID-19 have dominated headlines for months, the other crises—from climate change to inequality—have not gone away. 


The use of synthetic fertilizers, which increased eight-fold between 1960 and 2000, and fossil fuel combustion have produced the largest disturbance to the nitrogen biogeochemical cycle since it emerged 2.5 billion years ago.

The strain on our planet mirrors the strain facing many societies. Although the human family has achieved incredible things, we have taken the Earth for granted, destabilizing what we rely on for survival—we are literally cutting the ground out from under our feet. 

Many scientists consider that, for the first time, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are shaping the planet. It’s called the Anthropocene—the Age of Humans—and it represents an entirely new geological era, the consequences of which are already upon us.  


Rates of species extinction are estimated to be hundreds or thousands higher than 'normal' – an indication that we are undergoing the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history. The other five extinctions were due to natural causes. Humans are driving the sixth.

It poses questions vital to humanity’s future. What is next for human development? How do we find new paths that expand human freedoms and choice, while easing pressure on the planet? 

The Anthropocene era does not lend itself to clear-cut solutions. This age is a predicament that needs to be navigated, where the protection of the planet can be understood as the foundation of progress, not a constraint on prosperity.


The COVID-19 pandemic is already threatening a reversal in many fundamental aspects of human development
and showing that we need to rekindle our relationship with nature and the planet if we are to live in a more sustainable and fairer world.

The 2020 HDR offers an alternative to paralysis in the face of alarming planetary change. It comes as the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously offers a glimpse of what a new future could hold and presents the opportunity for humanity to change course. It sets out expanded metrics of human development, including a new, experimental Planetary Pressure AdjustedHuman Development Index (PHDI).

By adjusting the Human Development Index, 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 the wellbeing of people and planet were both central to defining humanity’s progress.

With the PHDI, a new global picture emerges, painting a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress.


Prosperity and progress cannot continue to rely on current models. The report contains fresh and fundamental suggestions—and calls for a transformation on the way we live, work and organize our societies.  


The report argue that broken societies are driving people and the planet into collision.


It makes no sense to think of human development as somehow separate from the planet. We are embedded in nature. Neglecting this fact not only threatens future generations with catastrophic risks but is blighting the lives of many today.

All too often, development reports focus either on nature or on people. This is a false dichotomy in the Anthropocene. With the natural and social sciences, along with the humanities now collaborating more intensely, new insights are emerging.

The 2020 report brings together the latest understanding of both to look at the fate of people and planet side by side.

Photo Credits

pg 1. NASA Earth Observatory
pg 2. Left to right: UN Photo/Milton Grant; UN Photo/John Isaac; UN Photo/Milton Grant
pg 5. bonandbon/
pg 6. Rich Carey/
pg 7. NOPPHARAT7824/
pg 8. @mikearney/
pg 10. UNDP Belarus/Sergei Gapon
pg 11. Damsea/
pg 12. Parilov/
pg 13. UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores
pg 14. UNDP Vietnam
pg 15. UNDP Bolivia/Miguel Samper
pg 17. UNDP Cambodia/Manuth Buth