A Climate for Solutions

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 39 No. 12, December 2019

By Bittu Sahgal, Lakshmy Raman and Cara Tejpal

Part I of VI,
Cover Story December Sanctuary Asia

By working with local communities, India can profit from its rich heritage, while using the finest science available for our national development. But along the way, it is vital that we heed voices such as those of Lord Nicholas Stern, India Observatory, London School of Economics. They point out that it is in our interests to accept that climate change and biodiversity loss will damage economies across the globe. While (most) global leaders acknowledge the reality of climate change, they have largely ignored the elephant in the room – biodiversity – write Bittu Sahgal, Lakshmy Raman and Cara Tejpal who believe that India should demonstrate to the world that protecting ecosystems and species diversity is critical to securing and improving the quality of life of our people.


Somewhere in the cultures of India lie solutions to the relationship of humans with the only planet they can call home… a planet under siege from a climate wobble that has not even begun to really spin out of control. 

Ironically, though the climate crisis has not historically been driven by India, it always was and promises to be our greatest disaster. We are too many people, cramped into very little space, with our water and food running low and our economy threatened.

Accepting that we have underestimated the risks of climate change, leading climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern says, “Thirteen years ago, we published the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and concluded that the costs of action were far less than the costs of inaction. Since then, it has become ever clearer that the costs of inaction, which we knew were deeply serious, are far bigger than we thought. The damaging effects of climate change are coming through even faster than we thought and the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases are still rising. Further, the costs of action, with the extraordinary technological progress and a much deeper understanding of nature-based solutions, have decreased radically and are probably now negative, in the sense that the actions we should take have powerful benefits over and above their contribution to reducing the risk of climate change. But there is something more than that. We now have a deeper understanding of the importance of biodiversity. Climate change causes extensive damage to biodiversity including loss of habitat and the undermining of ecosystems. Further, the loss of biodiversity can lead to the collapse of forests and other ecosystems, which leads to the release of greenhouse gases and an acceleration of climate change. It is the most vicious of circles. The implication is clear – if we act simultaneously on climate change and biodiversity, we have a new and very attractive story of development, which includes ecosystems, which are robust and fruitful with cities where we can move and breathe. This new story of development is in our hands. We must surely take this extraordinary opportunity and invest in our natural capital and build our physical capital in a very different way.”

Fortunately, solutions to the problem exist, and are (just about) within grasp, and as Lord Stern suggests, we must craft a new story of development.

Over the past year, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation has held a series of discussions and consultations with politicians, rural communities, decision-makers, planners and economists, plus some of India’s finest thinkers. We believe that, collectively, we can overcome the worst ecological impacts staring us in the face. 

The representative problems and solutions printed on the following pages are mere exemplars. Like a compass, they offer direction, not instruction. But they do highlight practical solutions and options to reboot our national purpose in ways that could benefit over one billion people.

Of the many actions we believe should become a part of our national development plan, one recommendation we have recently sent to Niti Aayog asks that India focuses resources to create several million jobs and livelihoods to restore and regenerate the catchment forests of our over 3,000 large dams, which are over-silted because deforestation has reduced the ability of plants to hold back the soil. 

Rather than heavy machinery, we advocate using manual labour (that’s where millions of jobs to those on the lowest economic rungs come in) to undertake the vital task of executing the proven soil and moisture conservation projects outside our protected sanctuaries and national parks. Just this one initiative, ideally coupled with the natural regeneration of our degraded Reserved Forest lands, would result in dramatically improved lean season water flows, reduced damage from floods and droughts, the sequestration and storage of carbon and the creation of jobs and right livelihoods. The predictable economic benefits, apart from more farm productivity through wells that would be recharged by rejuvenated aquifers, would be the bubbling up of GDP from below instead of having to wait for benefits to ‘trickle down’. 

Essentially, we need to use ancient strategies that have stood the test of time. And also be more respectful of traditions. Upstream forests used to be worshipped because they were the sources of water. Animals were worshipped because we accepted them as entities with a right to live. Coexistence was the order of the day. We settled where water flowed through river valleys. We grew what our soils and climate allowed us to grow. We worshipped nature and accepted its supremacy because we believed from our core that our lives were wholly dependent on it.

While technology must be used to our advantage, our only real hope of working our way out of the climate crisis is to flow with nature’s tide and accept its supremacy over us. This unfortunately is diametrically opposed to World Bank prescriptions for ecosystem management over the past five decades, when loans were extended to India to destroy natural forest and replace them with tropical pine, eucalyptus, Prosopis juliflora, wattle and more.

Back to the Future 

While our lives are getting more complicated by the day, the solutions staring us in the face are relatively simple. For instance, three to four months prior to the monsoons, villagers used to (many still do) get together to desilt their tanks, ponds and lakes. The rich soil collected was spread onto their own farms. This achieved the twin-objective of enhancing the storage capacity of their water sources while improving the fertility of farm soils and avoiding the use of toxic chemical fertilisers. 

At this point, a very old, very well-told children’s story is in order.

One of India’s ancient Jataka Kathaye (tales), representing the many reincarnations of the Buddha, might stand us in good stead here as an analogy for our current relationship with our biosphere. It goes something like this:

A goose with magical powers offered to gift a struggling, poor mother and her daughters a golden feather periodically, to keep them well provisioned. For a while all went well, until latent greed instigated the mother to set upon the goose on its next visit. Despite desperate pleas from her youngest daughter to not hurt the kindly goose, the woman plucked all the goose’s golden feathers in one go. Instantly, the feathers turned into worthless chicken feathers. Despite the old woman’s despairing promises to never repeat the mistake, the goose abandoned the family and flew away, leaving the mother and her family impoverished once more. 
The comparison with the behaviour of humans is all too obvious. As are our solutions. 

In the next few years, one single overriding national objective should be to empower those living closest to the earth; farmers, adivasis, and villagers in rural India, through employment designed to restore our natural capital. And this objective will only be achieved if we enable the pollinators that created the biosphere to do what they were designed to do by evolution. 

But the nature of employment must be such that it enhances, not depletes, our biodiversity because everything… food, water, climate and economic security, is dependent on species diversity, which economists now refer to as our natural capital. Most economists of yesteryear look upon biodiversity conservation as a distraction, often an impediment, to progress. Nothing could be further from reality because the economy is in truth a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says as much:

Marine and terrestrial ecosystems are the sole sinks for anthropogenic carbon emissions, with a gross sequestration of 5.6 gigatons of carbon per year (the equivalent of some 60 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions). Nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes to non-material aspects of quality of life – inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences, and supporting identities – that are central to quality of life and cultural integrity, even if their aggregated value is difficult to quantify.

What Needs to be Done
First: Set an example to the rest of the world by moving away from fossil fuels and invest human-power, technology and resource efficiency to nurture, protect and restore forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes, wetlands and hill ranges back to ecological health. 

Second: Instead of using GDP as a measure of national development, make clean air, water, healthy food and soils the primary measures of success for the nation and its people. 

Third: The Honourable Prime Minister has made ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to protect the environment, subscribed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations General Assembly. These promises need to be fulfilled by evaluating projects undermining SGD targets, thus threatening India’s already precarious ecological security.

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