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Needed: A New Paradigm Of Growth

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There are widespread misapprehensions that protecting the environment goes against the need for promoting development. This has happened unfortunately because the manner in which we have dealt with environmental issues has been only within the context of specific projects where environmental clearance is required, and often denied, creating the widespread impression that development and environmental protection are two conflicting goals. The reality is that protecting the environment is as much a part of sound economic policy as promoting economic activities themselves. The world has seen economic growth and development spurred by industrialisation for almost two centuries now, and in India it was really after independence that development plans were formulated and implemented. The initial period of industrialisation essentially followed the provisions of the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956, which assigned commanding heights of the economy to the government.  Consequently, the overwhelming emphasis was on public sector enterprise and heavy industry including the establishment of steel plants.  There was also a glaring neglect of a sound environmental policy, as a result of which massive deforestation and environmental damage accompanied various development projects.

Several decades of neglect of the environment have given birth to environmental activism which in the public mind sees development as an enemy of environmental protection.  Consequently, projects are opposed, because prima facie it is assumed that they would destroy the country’s ecosystems and natural resources.  Indeed, this is very much the reality with several development projects, because in urban centres like Mumbai there is evidence of destruction and neglect of mangrove plantations, wetlands and precious ecological resources which are essential for preserving several living species and providing ecosystem services for the benefit largely of the poor. But, it must be understood that environmental damage has major economic implications as well.  This is apparent, for instance, in the case of pollution of our rivers, which could otherwise be providing a large range of benefits, including clean drinking water and recreational facilities of substantial value.  If, for instance, the Yamuna River had acceptable quality of water flowing through it, apart from providing a ready source of drinking water the waterfront along the river could have been developed as recreational infrastructure that would add to the quality of life of local residents as well as those who come as tourists and visitors. More importantly, the extent of pollution in our rivers is making it impossible for species to survive within.  The Gangetic dolphin is one such living example of threatened species. It is entirely possible that continuing pollution and human intervention might result in extinction of these species. 

A more direct economic cost of river pollution is the reduction and almost complete loss of fish stocks in our rivers, which would otherwise have been a source of nutrition and proteins for human consumption.  Another example is the lowering of the water table in several parts of the country and extensive pollution of ground water resources.  Time was when water in rivers, ponds and ground water reservoirs was of a quality that was fit for human consumption.  Today ground water resources, particularly in those parts of the country where as function of the green revolution large qantities of fertilisers and pesticides are being used, result in large scale morbidity and perhaps a significant extent of mortality of human beings.  Degraded quality of natural resources, particularly something as vital as drinking water, obviously has major implications for human wellbeing. Gandhiji was right when he said “We may utilise the gifts of nature just as we choose but in her books, the debits are always equal to the credits”.

In a larger context, there is no more serious an issue with huge potential loss of human welfare than the impacts of climate change at the global level.  Three volumes which form part of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been produced recently, and the findings from these point to major risks for human society and all living species.  Some of these findings need to be borne in mind as negative impacts on economic activities as well.

Climate change has major implications for agricultural yields and production for the major crops (wheat, rice, and maize) in tropical and temperate regions. Climatechange without adaptation is projected to negatively impact production for localtemperature increases of 2°C or more above late-20th-century levels, although individuallocations may benefit.  Climate change is projected toprogressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields. Major future rural impacts are expected in the near-term and beyond through impacts onwater availability and supply, food security, and agricultural incomes, including shifts inproduction areas of food and non-food crops across the world.  Climate change over the 21stcentury is also projected to increase displacement of people, and it can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war andinter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such aspoverty and economic shocks.  Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerginghotspots of hunger. 

As against some of these impacts and what they would do to human well being the cost of mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases is actually very low.  Mitigation also carries several co-benefits, including higher energy security, lower levels of pollution at the local level, protection of ecosystems and several other benefits.

Hence, overall, a new paradigm of growth with environmental protection and low emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants would actually promote human welfare across the world.

Dr Pachauri is the Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI), Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

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