There is an intimate link between security of livelihoods and sustainability of lifestyles — both across nations and within countries. It is well accepted that the world cannot afford the profligate consumption patterns of the rich in the world, particularly the US. Many years ago, Mahatma Gandhi had pointedly asked, “How many worlds would India need to emulate the lifestyle of Britain?” Gandhi’s far-sighted wisdom confronts us today as the world grapples with related challenges of economic growth and climate change. That the current growth model is not sustainable or equitable, is well accepted. As the noted Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain would say, this efficiency revolution is meaningless without a sufficiency revolution...
Undoubtedly, faster economic growth is essential to lift millions out of poverty and give them a new future. The challenge is to find the economic drivers, which will acknowledge growing aspirations for a higher standard of living, and work to reinvent lifestyles that are affordable and sustainable.
One area where such a rework is called for urgently is in addressing the challenges posed by the migration-urbanisation-transportation nexus. Rapid migration is a reality, leading to an inevitable march towards urbanisation, along with a move towards ‘modern’ transportation. What choices we make along this nexus will be critical to the sustainability of our collective future. Will we ‘lock-in’ to the resource-intensive urbanisation and transportation model typified by the US, with suburban living and fuel-guzzling private vehicles? Or, will we develop newer more ‘smart’ models of living that allow the teaming millions moving to cities to experience a better life while being more sensitive to the sustainability imperatives that stare at us today?
At the global level, negotiations must address the matter of sharing atmospheric resources or ecological space on an equitable basis. At the national level, governments must provide economic and other incentives to steer the economy towards sustainable consumption that will, in turn, lead to sustainable prosperity.
In his address at the G8 plus 5 meeting at Heiligendamm, Germany in July 2007, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said, “We are determined that India’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are not going to exceed those of developed countries even while pursuing policies of development and economic growth”. Later that year, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an approach based on “per capita emissions increasingly converging worldwide at a level compatible with our shared climate protection goal”, arguing that “such a process of long-term convergence offers all countries scope to develop. It does not overburden any, yet ensures that the necessary action on the climate issue is taken. By this means, the principle that countries have shared but differing responsibilities can be translated into political and economic reality.” This formulation, which I call the ‘Singh-Merkel Convergence Formula’ or some variant of it, has the potential to contribute significantly to breaking the logjam in climate negotiations, but with a caveat. The caveat is this: Countries will converge to per capita emission levels at different levels of per capita income and this will make a difference to living standards.
Narrow concepts of gross national product growth must be transformed to reflect quality objectives, like prosperity and well-being. The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, noted in its 2009 report, that purely economic indicators say nothing about whether material well-being is bought at the expense of environmental impacts, or at the risk of overshooting critical natural system thresholds. For this reason, it is necessary to create more inclusive indicators that take into planetary health and human development.
In this context, I am happy to share with you that we in India have made a start, along these lines. Under the chairmanship of Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, perhaps the world’s most prominent ecological economist today, we have established an expert group to develop a framework for “Green National Accounts” for India, and we hope to be able to report it by the year 2015. Such efforts need to happen at a global level through coordinated action.
Another valuable exercise of quantifying the economic benefits from ecosystems of various types and costs associated with their loss is a global study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) supported by the UN Environment Program, the German government, the European Commission and others. A TEEB study for India was also commissioned, which shows, among other things that 45 per cent of household income or rural and forest dwellers in India come from natural resources and ecosystem services — this is the “GDP of the poor”, which is often ignored in traditional national accounting.
Modelling and assessments are equally important, so we can remain ahead of the curve and can prepare appropriate policy responses before it is too late. India, for example, has set up the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment, a network-based programme that brings together over 120 institutions and 220 scientists from across the country to undertake scientific assessments of different aspects of climate change across sectors and regions within the country.
There is a major role here for inter-governmental partnerships — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, despite its shortcomings, has given us a reasonable working model, and the same principles could now be deployed for broader sustainable development assessments. The UN secretary general’s panel has suggested the idea of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will be applicable to all countries, unlike the millennium development goals that are applicable only to the developing countries. It will be a herculean endeavour to develop a consensus on what these SDGs should be and what sustainable development indices should be used on a global scale. But we must make a beginning at the Rio+20 Summit to be held very soon.
Excerpts from a speech ‘Making Sustainable Prosperity Happen Now’ by Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh to Parliament of Finland, in Helsinki on April 11