How resource overuse has now put us on the brink of collapse in many sectors

Published: June 14, 2019 12:09:31 AM

The policy requires full assessment of all measures proposed to improve efficiency, to ensure that their social and environmental impacts are also net positive.

Inputs to it, through the forthcoming phase of public consultation, must lead to it formalising systemic approaches such as adoption of circular economy practicesInputs to it, through the forthcoming phase of public consultation, must lead to it formalising systemic approaches such as adoption of circular economy practices

By Ashok Khosla

India’s development trajectory has to meet the twin objectives of (1) ‘Prosperity for All,’ (2) ‘Within Planetary Boundaries’. National strategies for economic development and growth must, therefore, ensure that building financial and human capital does not stress our natural capital; rather, it must regenerate it. A national policy framework that guides the sustainable management of our natural resources and ecosystem services is critical to secure India’s future. The draft National Policy on Resource Efficiency for India being formulated by the government is a necessary first step in this direction.

For centuries, our development and economic prosperity has depended on increasing production of goods and services. This has led to ever-growing consumption of natural resources, leading to their depletion. The result is a severe threat to nature’s capacity to yield, let alone regenerate, the resources we need. Furthermore, rapid resource exploitation is the single greatest cause of accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification, not to mention the clouds of toxic pollution and mountains of non-processable wastes that we produce. Today, all of us depend more than ever on natural resources. Access to land and fresh water is as crucial to the small-scale farmer, for drinking and irrigation, as it is to the daily needs of her compatriot in a distant city. Industrialists need uninterrupted supply of metal alloys to make engineering products; and citizens need energy resources for lighting, mobility and numerous other requirements of modern living.

Globally, resource use over the past century has grown faster than the economy; and the economy grows faster than the population. By 2050, we can expect to have around four billion middle-class consumers, most of them urban dwellers creating huge demand for resources and generating large amounts of waste and pollution.
While technological improvements in extracting, processing and transporting natural resources ensured low trading prices for most of last century, stocks of the free resources provided by nature were more intensively utilised. But such overuse of nature’s endowment is no longer possible. Over the last decade, prices of traded resources have started to rise, as more and more resources appear to be scarce. FAO estimates that 60% of the world’s fisheries are in a state of collapse. In India, widely used materials such as topsoil and sand, both crucial for making building materials, are no longer available in many markets. Moreover, extraction, processing, transportation and use of resources is highly energy-consuming, and a major contributor to carbon emissions and climate change. Clearly, in the domain of resources, we must now learn to do more with less. This means raising the efficiency of our production systems, following the essential Rs—reuse, repair, recycle, refurbish, re-manufacture, etc—and implementing the lessons of circular economy. Today, fewer than 1% of the special metals constituting our mobile phones, computers, windmills and solar devices are recycled. All over the world, landfills, rivers, and even oceans are burgeoning with discarded materials and food wastes which, through better management, could have improved lives and livelihoods.

Much of the knowledge and technology to make substantial improvements in resource utilisation and productivity already exists. It is estimated that using currently available technologies, this sector could contribute several trillion dollars to the global economy.

Technology innovation is, of course, important; behavioural change in consumers and major productive sectors is even more crucial. But all these changes need supportive policy environments. The draft National Policy on Resource Efficiency for India aims to address key aspects of decoupling economic development from environmental impact and resource stress.

The policy requires full assessment of all measures proposed to improve efficiency, to ensure that their social and environmental impacts are also net positive. Furthermore, the policy must focus on critical resources and sectors essential for maintaining resource security, strengthening India’s competitiveness, and ensuring basic needs and economic opportunities for current and future generations. Inputs to it, through the forthcoming phase of public consultation, must lead to it formalising systemic approaches such as adoption of circular economy practices, promoting sustainable consumption patterns and production systems, and supporting innovation in technology, economic instruments and financing mechanisms.

The writer is Chairman, Development Alternatives Group

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