Choosing sustainable development

  • Arunabha Ghosh, None
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:21 IST
Development, environment and pollution are political issues. They have been at the core of the confrontation between developed and developing countries for more than four decades. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Green growth is the pursuit of economic growth while also ensuring that the natural capital is managed and preserved in order to continue deriving resources and environmental services in future. It involves financial investment, political will and the ability to manage social and political tensions as some win and others lose. There will be tradeoffs and there will be opportunities. At least three sets of choices will determine how India navigates these possibilities.

The first choice will be over how to measure welfare and sustainability. Gross domestic product and per capita income have been both the simplest and also highly contested indicators to measure human progress. The Human Development Index measures achievements in three basic dimensions of human development-a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. In September 2015, UN member states will agree on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with environmental issues expected to take a more central place. Various new or modified indices are being proposed to gauge progress across multiple dimensions: resource footprinting combines several dimensions (e.g., water, energy, and carbon footprints) across the value chain and lifecycle of products, processes and services; accounting for the value of ecosystem services has been suggested but depends on baselines being established, new cost-benefit frameworks developed, and common accounting standards agreed; or simply measuring improved delivery of basic services to all, with the focus on reducing inequalities within countries.

Secondly, will public policy send signals to households or firms that more efficient patterns of resource use would yield economic dividends? Leading economies - China, Japan, South Korea, United States - have already started pursuing industrial strategies structured around opportunities in the new "green economy". These range from R&D in energy technologies, transportation, and materials and process efficiency, combined with biotechnology, information technology and high-tech manufacturing. India, too, has taken actions under its National Action Plan on Climate Change, particularly in setting aggressive renewable energy and energy efficiency targets. But many untapped opportunities lie in manufacturing, which consumes nearly a third of India's primary energy supply. Under "Make in India", India has identified a number of sectors it wishes to promote, from automobiles to railways, mining to oil and gas, or renewable energy as well as thermal power. Many of these sectors could benefit from emerging technologies (such as advanced materials, industrial biotechnology, nanotechnology, photonics and micro- and nano-electronics), which could deliver higher value creation opportunities as well as greater resource efficiency.

Thirdly, India will have to choose the timescales against which it measures the risks of unsustainable growth. Risk is a function of time, impacts and probability. Investment decisions must account for long-term risks, which might have low probabilities today but whose likelihood could increase in non-linear ways in future. With unabated greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will exacerbate stresses across a range of services delivered by the natural environment. Water stress will increase in South Asia, where drought could affect around 7% total cropland in 2050. Losses in rice, wheat and maize yield in India could reach US$366 billion in 2100 (in 2010 US$ prices). Heat stress would impose severe mortality risks in major urban centres even as the risk of vector-borne diseases (such as dengue) also rises. Meanwhile, coastal infrastructure would be threatened ingress of sea water and severe flooding associated with sea-level rise. The probability of what is now a '100-year flood event' could become1000 times more likely for a city like Kolkata. These risks have to be continually assessed, without which investments in the building blocks of economic growth could lose significant value.

Development, environment and pollution are political issues. They have been at the core of the confrontation between developed and developing countries for more than four decades. And, increasingly, they are going to define political priorities and the distribution of economic and social welfare in India. For sustainable development to have true resonance, there has to be sustainability of physical and human in addition to natural capital. It cannot mean locking people into lives of poverty. Instead, sustainable human development requires that the world's (and India's) income and consumption patterns would have to be restructured - an outcome that is, at its core, linked to the lifestyles we choose.

(Dr Arunabha Ghosh is CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water ( ), one of South Asia's leading think-tanks. He is, most recently, co-author of Climate Change: A Risk Assessment (2015). Follow him @GhoshArunabha)

also read

Supreme Court to hear bank consortium’s plea Vijay Mallya today
Show comments