Shaping the Trends of Our Time

Published today,  a new report, Shaping the Trend of Our Time, by the UN Economist Network, analyses five global megatrends – climate change; demographic shifts, especially population ageing; urbanization; digital technologies; and inequalities –that are affecting economic, social and environmental outcomes.

In this interview, Pushpam Kumar, Chief Environmental Economist for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who led the organisation’s input to the report, speaks about the megatrends and the opportunities they present for policymakers.

This report was written by economists from several UN agencies, what perspective does this bring?

This report is at the intersection of science and policy, produced by senior economists from various UN agencies, including UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN-Habitat, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

They bring a rich perspective on how the economy and society interface with demographic dynamics such as urbanization, technology and similar trends. The report builds upon latest scientific findings and insights from these UN agencies. It links the megatrends, offering a clear picture of how climate and urbanization may impact inequality and poverty, and how new technology (innovation, diffusion and deployment) could affect climate change and natural capital. The report is a fascinating read for people who have the will to influence policy choices for a better future for all.

How did UNEP contribute to the section on climate, natural capital and pollution?

UNEP contributed on the research and analysis of this profound megatrend, which directly influences all the other megatrends. 

We reviewed and synthesised information coming from the different strands of UNEPs work in these areas over the last few years. The input was built on the science and data from flagship reports such as the Inclusive Wealth report, the Global Environmental Outlook report and findings from other conventions and outreach work. We also drew in findings from IPCC reports like the 1.5’C report and the IPBS Global Assessment report from 2019.

What is natural capital?

Natural capital refers to is natural assets, both renewable and non-renewable. They support human production and consumption, sustaining humanity. This bounty of nature, however, is not free and unlimited, human activity is degrading and depleting it. Maintaining natural assets require investment, such as spending on land or coastal restoration. Spending on restoration should be treated as an investment not expenditure, because nature provides long-term services and benefits to people both directly and indirectly.

What trends does the report find in terms of climate, natural capital and pollution?

Our analysis confirms the climate trends noted by the IPCC. Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown every year since the global financial crisis in 2009, with no sign of reaching peak emissions in the next few years. This is serious as the changing climate will impact all communities, especially those in Africa and Asia. Climate change is also likely to become the dominant driver of biodiversity changes in the coming decades.

The trend can be reversed by effective response policies. From 2020 to 2030, nature-based solutions implemented with safeguards could provide up to 37 per cent of the mitigation needed to limit average global warming to below 2°C.

On natural capital, we didn’t identify a trend, however UNEP has taken a leadership role in this field. Our latest report on Inclusive Wealth shows an average decline in natural capital in 140 countries from 1992-2014.

On biodiversity, we are alarmed by the fact that 1 million species face extinction, many within decades. Urgent, concerted global action is needed to reverse this trend. Having scientifically credible indicators and targets for biodiversity would greatly help. Inclusive wealth including natural capital serves this purpose.

On pollution, we found an alarming rise of air pollution in Asia, Africa and parts of the Amazonia. This does not mean that air pollution has spared North America, the Middle East and Europe, but that it is more pronounced and widespread in the developing world. Air pollution has a huge impact on human health, associated with 6-7 million premature deaths annually.

Marine pollution is also very pronounced in coastal parts of the world. Finally, degradation of land and erosion of soil is on the rise in parts of South and Central Asia, sub-Saharan and North Africa, which will have serious implications for food production.

Reforestation in ChadChildren near the seedlings in the reforestation site in Merea, Chad. Photo by UNDP Chad / Jean Damascene Hakuzimana

How do the trends of climate, natural capital and pollution influence human development?

Poverty,  hunger, inequality, human health are directly related to how well nature functions. This is very clear from the low- and middle-income countries . Various constituents and determinants of human development are directly dependent on quality of top soil, green space in the cities, forest biomass, fish stock, common property resources (and access), ground and surface water and general levels of pollution.

What actions could help mitigate the negative trends on climate, natural capital and pollution?

Transformative change is needed, which will entail profound shifts in how governments, businesses and markets respond to demands for energy and food, and material-intensive services.

Policy frameworks and innovative response options are needed, which support transformative change, such as culture shifts, technological evolution, nature-based solutions and tools of inclusive circular economy. Sustainable development policy needs to be firmly rooted in a systems approach to analysis, which acknowledges the direct and indirect drivers of change, while minimizing trade-offs and harvesting synergy.

Do the trends offer any opportunities for sustainable development?


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are integrated and holistic – they are the responsibility of us all. Individuals, families, communities, regions and nations can mould their approach, outlook and aspirations through sustainable consumption and production. Economic tools like climate bonds, wetland banking or incentive based access for biodiversity should be used in a socially credible fashion to make it inclusive and equitable.

The report outlines actions we need to take to influence and re-shape these trends in order to approach and reach the SDGs. We have less than ten years to achieve the goals, and this report provides evidence and tools for decision makers to influence policy choices and action at the national and global levels.

How does findings of the report can help in providing solution to the COVID19 pandemic?

There are dedicated reports from the UN to understand the causes, implication and solutions to the COVID19 pandemic, including UNEP and ILRI’s recent publication, Preventing the next pandemic: zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.

Innovative economic tools like climate bond, wetland banking, incentives access and benefit sharing in biodiversity conservation should be used in a transparent, inclusive and credible fashion.

We now know the pandemic has arisen from a pathogen that was transferred from the wild to humans. This happened due to a combination of factors ranging from habitat fragmentation, climate change, illegal trade of wildlife and domestication of wild animals. Today, the magnitude of relief packages touches USD $15 trillion, and the havoc on our economies and societies is cataclysmic. The causes of this pandemic relate to biodiversity and climate, so the solution must factor these in to build back better. The report covers good ground on this issue.