Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India's Economic Climate

The billionaires of tomorrow will be those who can provide all that humanity needs without adversely tilting the carbon balance

Published: Jun 12, 2012 06:07:50 AM IST
Updated: Jun 16, 2012 03:14:03 PM IST
India's Economic Climate

Bittu Sahgal
Position:  Founder- editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine
Contribution: Written several books on India’s national parks, especially tiger reserves and started Sanctuary Tiger Programme, a mass contact campaign that reached millions of school children across several states in the country.

The economist Nick Stern, Ranjit Barthakur [chairman, Globally Managed Services, and advisor to the Government of Assam] and I sat in a guard hut removing leeches from our feet as we contemplated our just-completed, six-kilometre trek through the riverine forests of the Nameri Tiger Reserve in Assam. Along the way we stopped at a large, sweet-water body, bustling with waterfowl of all descriptions and marvelled at the manner in which disparate creatures all managed to fashion a living out of a common resource, without spoiling it for other species. As we moved on, following the pugmarks of a tiger that had stopped to drink at the same crystal water source for over 500 metres, we found ourselves variously in tall grassland, thick forest and sandy river beds. Everywhere were signs of life…the tiger, of course, and wild pig, sambar deer, elephant and more.

“This forest is a carbon storehouse,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, gazing about him in wonder at the sheer beauty and productivity of the forest. “It makes economic sense for India to protect such biodiversity vaults, as it searches for ways to meet the legitimate aspiration of development of the poor, without destabilising the ecological foundations upon which all economic security is dependent.”

Stern, who shook the world of economics when he released his path-breaking Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, provided me with hope for the future. His basic thesis that ecosystem renewal was key to reining in climate impacts and that the cost of climate inaction would be greater than the cost of action makes a great deal of sense.

When Sanctuary Asia, the magazine I edit, articulated similar fears about the economic and social impact of deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change in the mid-1980s, we had few takers for our concerns. But that was understandable because we had little empirical data to back our postulations. Today the sheer weight of science has changed the dynamic. Even the most obdurate climate sceptics are fast accepting not only the fact of climate change, but the undeniable contribution of humans in pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

The age of climate denial, in other words, is over. This has huge ramifications for the way economics will be conducted in the decades to come without cheap, carbon-based development options. Apart from the American mid-West and its oil-lobby camp followers, across the world extreme climatic events and disasters, heat waves in Russia, floods in China, Australia, India and Pakistan and droughts in Africa are forcing all nations to come to grips with ecological realities. Gunter Pauli, author of the iconic Blue Economy, is nevertheless upbeat about our ability to cope with the changes we are being forced to deal with: “Just about every problem that humanity faces has already been resolved somewhere, somehow by some species or other in nature! It’s amazing how natural systems simplified it all, without the paraphernalia that humans seem to need,” adding, “Nature needs no batteries to have power, rivers do not need filters to cleanse the water, and trees do not require pumps to lift water and nutrients into the canopy.”

Frankly, the future does belong to entrepreneurs and economists who can unlock the harvest to be reaped from the knowledge economy. The billionaires of tomorrow will be those who are able to tap into nature’s potential to supply humanity with water, food, clothing, shelter and health without adversely tilting the carbon balance. According to Pavan Sukhdev, founder of Green Initiatives for a Smarter Tomorrow (GIST) and Special Adviser and Head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative: “Greening economies will not pose a burden on growth but rather a new engine for creating wealth and employment, and the reduction of persistent poverty.”

I have been trying with little success to influence India’s economic climate to bring it in line with the reality that the destruction of biodiversity can only aggravate poverty. All ecosystems are carbon banks. All ecosystems need species diversity to function and restoring natural ecosystems is the only real way to counter the worst impacts of climate change and its handmaidens: Floods, droughts, hunger and disease.

The late Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, the UK, put it like this: “It might be useful to think of the role of diversity as one of insurance against discontinuities.” He further explains that “there is little distinction between complexity and diversity, which can be said to have two components. The first, species richness, or species density, a measure of the total number of species present in an ecosystem. And the second, species evenness, a measure of the relative abundance of the different species present and of the extent to which the most abundant ones dominate.”

With Rio+20 around the corner, we at Sanctuary Asia have a wish list that we believe would be a positive first step towards moving our planet away from the climate precipice:
1) a strong framework that outlines how countries can work towards a sustainable future at a national and regional level;
2) a recognition of the value of the services provided by the natural world and the institutionalisation of systems to evaluate the monetary benefits of protecting ecosystem services; and
3) a commitment from developed nations to assist developing countries to work on climate change through the protection of biodiversity, which would employ millions.

Much of the repair job on a wounded planet that has been mismanaged by humans can be left to nature and its self-repairing mechanisms. As for India, and its billion+ souls, more than the economic climate, it is the ecological climate that will determine their future and that of their progeny.

(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)