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Home > 2021 > Nature key to Human Well-Being and Prosperity | K N Ninan

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 40, New Delhi, Sept 18, 2021

Nature key to Human Well-Being and Prosperity | K N Ninan

Friday 17 September 2021

by K N Ninan *

With most countries failing to achieve the 20 Aichi Biodiversity targets as stated in the UN’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, attention is focussed on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be unveiled at the COP 15 meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity scheduled to be held in Kunming, China during October 11-15, 2021.

A reality check on the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services depicts a grim picture. According to a recent global assessment conducted by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) one million species are at risk of extinction during the coming decades. Out of 18 ecosystem services evaluated except for agricultural, fish and bioenergy production and material harvest all services reported negative trends during 1970 to 2019. The Centre for International Forestry Research estimates that each year the world loses US$ 6.3 trillion worth of ecological services due to forest and land degradation. An IPBES report notes that loss of pollinators threatens global crop output worth between US$ 235 billion to US$ 577 billion annually. Pollution is estimated to cause around 9 million premature deaths annually and millions more die every year due to other environment-related health risks. Land use and land cover change and climate change are among the major drivers contributing to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. If unchecked this will have an adverse impact on economies, ecosystems, lives, and livelihoods. It will also jeopardise achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Biodiversity provides several tangible and intangible benefits that are critical to human well-being and good quality of life. Apart from its benefits and intrinsic worth it also has an insurance value. For instance, the genetic pool that it contains helps develop new crop varieties and drugs which are important to combat the adverse impacts of climate change. Nature helps reduce vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events, and health risks such as zoonotic diseases. A recent UN report notes that India figured among the top five countries in the world with the direct economic losses due to disasters between 1998 to 2017 estimated at US$ 79.5 billion (in 2017 US$) of which climate-related losses accounted for 80%.

The UK Government’s Treasury department commissioned an independent global review in March 2019 led by Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge to assess the economic value of biodiversity and identify actions that will simultaneously enhance biodiversity and economic prosperity. The report that was released recently emphasises that nature is key to improving human well-being and economic prosperity. It calls for a shift in the way we think, act and measure economic success and to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world. It calls for market, financial, institutional, and educational reforms so that humans live in harmony with nature.

Governments assess progress or well-being in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). GDP however is a flawed measure since it does not consider how environmental degradation or income distribution impact long term well-being. A barrel of oil or a tonne of iron ore extracted today is counted as an addition to GDP. But these resources (non-renewable) once extracted are no longer available for future generations and thus will constrain long-term economic growth and welfare. Traditional national income accounts allow for depreciation of man-made capital but not of natural capital even though its depletion affects long term well-being.

Despite initiatives to incorporate sustainability concerns in national accounts such as the UN’s System of Environmental Economic Accounting or Green GDP these are yet to be adopted by governments. The review argues that to accurately measure well-being one ought to consider the concept of inclusive wealth which comprises produced capital (factories, machines, roads), human capital (skills and knowledge) and natural capital (soils, forests, lakes). Tracking the changes in these three forms of assets will better capture social well-being. UNEP’s Inclusive Wealth Report 2018 compared the per capita GDP (income) growth in 140 countries with per capita (inclusive) wealth and noted that 44 out of 140 countries reported a decline in per capita (inclusive) wealth between 1990 to 2014, even though per capita GDP increased in most countries. However, like GDP the inclusive wealth approach too has shortcomings in that it does not tell us anything about income (or wealth) distribution within countries which affects well-being.

Protected areas (PAs) need to be expanded in both land and the seas. According to the report, to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans and manage them effectively by 2030 would require an average investment of US$ 140 billion annually which is just about 0.16% of global GDP and less than a third of the current global subsidies that support activities that destroy nature. The benefits from this would be immense such as lowering climate and health risks. Let alone increase the coverage of PAs, the report notes that only 20% of existing PAs are managed well. The review calls for greater involvement of indigenous people and local communities in the management of PAs.

Under a business-as-usual scenario we would need 1.6 Earths to sustain our current lifestyles and activities. This calls for a shift towards sustainable food production system, decarbonising our energy and transport systems, changing our consumption and production patterns, and reducing food wastages (estimated at 1/3rd of global food production) to realise a climate-resilient economy and society. Reducing perverse subsidies (globally estimated at US$ 4-6 trillion annually) is critical for halting the destruction of nature. The review calls for increased financial flows and incentives such as Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes and Debt for Nature swaps to reward those communities and countries that conserve and supply ecosystem services.

Businesses and financial institutions are increasingly concerned about how to hedge their businesses from nature-related financial risks. Nature-based activities contribute a significant share to the incomes and well-being of many nations especially developing countries, and of poor and indigenous communities. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) report on ‘Nature Risks Rising’ notes that some of the fastest growing economies of the world are highly vulnerable to nature loss. For example, about a third of the gross domestic product (GDP) in India and Indonesia are generated in nature-dependent sectors. African countries reported this proportion to be 23% of their GDP. Even large economies such as China, the EU and USA which together account for 60% of the global GDP reported high amounts of GDP as being generated in nature-dependent sectors i.e., US$ 2.7 trillion in China, US$ 2.4 trillion in the EU and US$ 2.1 trillion in the USA.

The WEF report analysed 163 industries and their supply chains and found that about US$ 44 trillion of economic value generation -over half of the world’s GDP- is highly dependent on nature and its services. The pharmaceutical industry depends on tropical rainforests and plants for many existing and potential drugs. For instance, 25% of drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants. About 50% of prescription drugs are based on molecules derived from plants. Poor and indigenous communities depend on the natural environment for subsistence, income, and employment. Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and forest employment contribute a significant share to their household income. Businesses therefore need to incorporate sustainability concerns in their strategies and plans. The report calls for an increase in green investments and nature-based solutions to address climate and health risks which are cost-effective and yield co-benefits such as generating job opportunities, enhance biodiversity, and help in covid recovery stimulus programmes. Conserving nature is also critical to realising the Sustainable Development Goals.

The review calls for reforming our educational system whereby natural history is taught as a part of the curriculum from the early years. Citizens should be empowered to ensure better outcomes for nature. But sadly, in our country citizens who champion environmental or social causes are charged with sedition and branded as anti-nationals, terrorists.

Though our governments profess to support environmental protection their actions speak otherwise. Even after ten years the Kasturi Rangan Committee’s recommendation to notify 37% of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot as an ecologically sensitive area has not been implemented. In March 2020 under the cover of the Covid pandemic the National Board for Wildlife chaired by then Union Minister Prakash Javadekar (instead of by the Prime Minister) cleared 31 projects without assessing their environmental impact. Sixteen of these projects are in national parks, tiger reserves and reserve forests. In the name of Atmanirbhar, environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulations have been weakened to facilitate such projects in ecologically sensitive areas.

* (The author is Senior Fellow, World Resources Institute-India, New Delhi)

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