Co-Chair, Resource Panel, UNEP International /
Founder and President, Development Alternatives
Became Director of the Indian Government’s first Environment Office in 1972 after post-graduate degrees in experimental physics from Cambridge and Harvard Universities. In 1983, he founded and is currently the Chairman of Development Alternatives, an organisation that markets commercially viable and environmentally friendly technologies. Co-Chair of the UN’s International Resource Panel and was, until recently, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and of the Club of Rome.
UNEP International Resource Panel
Beyond 2012 :
—Leapfrogging with New Technology—
Co-Chair, UNEP International Resource Panel /
Founder and President, Development Alternatives
Looking back on the year 2012
---When you look back at the year 2012, what can you say the year was like?
From a global perspective, the year 2012 brought us both a few rays of hope and growing doses of anxiety. It gathered national leaders from around the world, in Rio, to explore ways to end poverty and regenerate the health of the environment, worldwide. And it was also the year when more countries than ever experienced growing vulnerability to climate change, biodiversity loss and economic hardship. Within the context of our own region, Asia and Pacific, we have witnessed a significant slowing down of our economies, while our financial needs and obligations are increasing rapidly. Although the “natural disasters” of 2012 cannot compare with those of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in the previous year, the rising frequency of so-called extreme events is extremely worrying. The typhoons Bolaven and Sanba, which were among the most severe typhoons in a decade, drenched parts of Japan and inundated the Korean peninsula in September. The very next month, Hurricane Sandy wreaked massive destruction in the Atlantic region, and a very violent storm surge hit the Indian subcontinent. Hurricanes, typhoons and storm surges occur every year, but their growing frequency and ferocity in recent years is an issue of huge concern to all of us, both in the region and worldwide.
While earthquakes are not normally caused by human activity, climate change, sea level rise and biodiversity loss often are. Destruction of our forests, lands and rivers leads not only to changes in rainfall - and the consequent floods and droughts - but also to the creation of major weather disturbances and to the loss of resilience in natural and social systems that could enable us to cope with these disturbances. These events and the costs that they are inflicting on our economies are, I believe, indicators of the growing dangers that we face, though we don’t really have adequate evidence for all the possible pitfalls that the world will have to deal with yet. What we agreed at Stockholm 40 years ago, that when confronted with difficult choices of things we should or should not do, the precautionary principle is fundamentally important; if necessary, we must err on the side of caution in what we do. While economies have to develop, they must do so in a manner that minimises the risks of creating more harm than benefits.
How do you see the future development in Asia?
---Do you have any concrete ideas for leapfrogging opportunities or a development path in Asia in the future?
The overall goal is to bring people and ecosystems back into economics, something we have forgotten to do over the past two hundred years. This means fundamentally transforming the relationships that currently exist between society, nature and the machine. Leapfrogging thus has to occur in many different spheres. Clearly, the easiest way is through technology innovation, something we are pretty good at: efficiency, minaturisation, renewables, reducing wastes, recycling and other technological interventions. Then, slightly more difficult, but equally important we must redesign our economic policies and institutions - through fiscal and other measures - and ensure that the markets get the correct price so they recognise the actual value (scarcity) of each resource and use them optimally. Together, these can easily lead to a factor of 5 (*2) reduction in resource use and environmental damage. To go further, one has to do more difficult things, such as bring about behavioural change at the individual, household and community level ? sharing of underutilised resources, public transport and utilities, switching from automobiles to bicycles or redesigning our cities to need less transport, less materials and less energy.
In technology, one big leapfrogging step will be in the area of technology, which is inspired by nature. What we call biomimicry. There are many things that we do in our modern economies using large amounts of materials, chemicals, water and energy, produced in large factories at high temperatures and pressures that nature does all the time without any fuss, under ambient conditions. And it produces no waste. The waste of one species becomes the food of another species. So, a large part of our whole cyclic economy that Japan calls the 3R or Recycle, Reuse and Reduce, can become a reality, simply by imitating nature. An organisation I am associated with, with its headquarters right here in Tokyo, called ZERI, the Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives, has done pioneering work over the past 15 years in this field. They promote many kinds of new technologies based on nature. For example, one of the best and most permanent black inks is made from parts of the squid harvests that were thrown away back into the sea as waste.
|Energy Efficient Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, based on Termite Tower Air Conditioning Principles (by ZERI)
I believe that we can have major breakthroughs and leapfrogging in the areas of managing our water and energy, too. Because in the past there was enough water and energy for everyone and nobody bothered to try and conserve it. But now we know that there isn’t enough. So, we’re going to have to leapfrog both in terms of technologies but also in terms of behaviour. We need to look at how we manage these resources, how we price them for example, or in the ways in which we can ration them, so that everybody gets as much as they need, but not so much as to waste these precious assets which will be needed by future generations as well.
So, I’m pretty sure in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of technology leapfrogging. What I hope is that we will also see fundamental changes in our economic systems - the means by which we reorient our economies to be more in harmony with nature - and above all, the goals of society so that all these changes contribute to the creation of lives of good health, meaning and dignity of all citizens of our planet.
---Thank you very much.
*1: UNEP International Resource Panel: The International Resource Panel (IRP) was established in 2007 to provide independent, coherent and authoritative scientific assessment on the sustainable use of natural resources and the environmental impacts of resource use over the full life cycle.
*2: Transforming the global economy through 80% improvements of resource productivity by increasing wealth while reducing resource consumption (or environmental pressure).