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Q&A with Manish Bapna: Environmental Protection and Poverty Reduction Are Linked

This is a Q&A with Manish Bapna, WRI's interim president. The story originally appeared in the Brazilian publication, "Revista Epoca," and was written by Luciana Vicaria.

LV: In your opinion, what are the biggest environmental problems?

MB: Today’s environmental challenges are largely interconnected. Two-thirds of the ecosystem services (the benefits that people derive from nature that underpin economies and livelihoods) are degraded . This degradation is expected to accelerate in the first half of the 21st century, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. By 2025, up to two-thirds of the world’s people are projected to live in water‐stressed conditions. Food security is another pressing concern. To feed the world’s nine billion people (which we’re expected to pass by mid-century), the U.N. Food and Agriculture (FAO) organization projects that food availability needs to increase by at least 70 percent.

LV: Will every person on earth be affected by those consequences in similar ways?

MB: No. The combined stress of rising commodity prices, ecosystem degradation, and global warming will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable communities, who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods and well being. It will take a comprehensive approach from governments, business, and civil society to respond to these pressures and move these issues to the center of the political and economic agenda. Government officials and business leaders in Rio need to develop concrete and lasting solutions to these challenges and ensure that the planet continues to be healthy and vibrant for people and business alike.

LV: It is also commonplace to hear that we should first resolve our social hardships and, only after, worry about endangered species and environmental issues, especially in developing countries.

MB: While some portray environmental protection in opposition to poverty reduction, the reality is that the two are intimately intertwined. We can – and should – tackle poverty at the same time as we protect ecosystems and natural resources. The principal reason is that the poor are often disproportionately dependent on what nature provides – such as clean water, productive soils, or a stable climate – for their well-being and livelihoods. If land becomes degraded or if fisheries collapse, it is often the poor who suffer the most.

LV: Is it fair to ask emerging economies to stop the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which are often the result of much-needed growth, in order to benefit the environment?

MB: This is a difficult and sensitive question. Of course, developing countries are right when they say they are not the cause of most of the global environmental problems the world faces today, including climate change. However, developing countries’ ignoring today’s problems and endlessly expanding their energy use and dependence on dirty energy sources isn’t in their interest either. It’s true that China is the largest consumer of coal and is the leading producer of carbon emissions today (based on total global emissions). India is now in third place. Clearly, from a per capita standpoint, they rank much lower. Therefore, our ability to cut global emissions is going to depend not only on the developed world, like the U.S. and European Union, but also on major emerging economies.

LV: Is there any advantage for the developing country in that case?

MB: Fortunately, developing countries have an opportunity to chart a better course than many developed countries have. We have learned much over the years about how to reduce poverty and stimulate robust economic growth in ways that sustain the ecosystems on which we all depend. Although developing countries didn’t cause many of the environmental problems the world faces today, it is in their self-interest—and the world’s—to be part of the solution in shaping a more sustainable planet for all people.

LV: How do we convince countries to invest in a sustainable economy?

As we’ve seen, many countries have been slow to embrace the idea of the “green economy,” and, especially in the recent tough economic times – as we’ve seen in the U.S., E.U., and elsewhere—it has been too easy to push sustainability effort to the margins. Fortunately, there is a range of sensible policies that governments can adopt.

LV: Can you give some examples?

MB: Just look at Germany. Germany’s feed-in tariff is among the most powerful examples of bold government action on renewables. Supported by government incentives, Germany received 20 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2011, up from 6.4 percent in 2000. The government’s renewable energy strategy has enabled the development of a dynamic new sector that provided over 380,000 jobs last year, while offering consumers more power options. Ultimately, it will take a mix of policies and incentives, together with public investment, to drive a true shift to sustainability.

LV: Do the developing countries have initiatives similar to those?

MB: Developing countries, too, are waking up to the possibilities of a vibrant green economy. Indonesia is working to protect its forests and reuse already degraded land. In Uganda, the promotion of organic agriculture is helping tens of thousands of farmers to earn up to 300 percent more from certified organic pineapple, ginger, vanilla, and other exports. In Brazil, Natura is perhaps the best-known example of a thriving business that is finding success by working with local partners to incorporate responsible use of the country’s abundant natural resources.

LV: What is the role of business and governments to build a healthier economy?

MB: Governments need to put in place sound policies that will help protect the environment and create incentives for business to do the same. It also means that businesses need to make investments that will help create a more sustainable planet. For example, many companies, like agribusinesses and beverage manufactures, are starting to incorporate better water management into their strategies. Likewise, technology companies, like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, are investing in low-carbon, renewable energy to power their operations. Ultimately, we need to push sustainability to the center of the political and economic agenda – and envision a planet where environmental protection and economic growth are part of a cohesive and integrated strategy. Rio+20 offers an opportunity to drive this shift and lay out concrete steps to move the planet toward a more sustainable future.

LV: Are big cities an important part of this new sustainable economy?

MB: As we look at the current trends, it is clear that cities will be at the center of the sustainability challenges of the future. Not only is the global population expanding, it is becoming more urbanized. Already, the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities and towns. By 2030, the urban population is expected to pass 5 billion people. While traditional environmental concerns have typically focused on rural areas, cities present different challenges.

LV: What are those challenges?

MB: Many of today’s cities suffer from over-crowding, air and water pollution, and traffic congestion. On the other hand, cities present new opportunities. We can build lower carbon and less wasteful buildings. We can shift to better, more efficient transportation systems. We can develop innovations in urban land use planning that can more efficiently meet the needs of tomorrow. This is being exemplified in cities in Brazil, like the city of Curitiba, that has seen breakthroughs in public transportation, like bus rapid transit (BRT), under the leadership of Mayor Jaime Lerner. City governments, working with business and civil society, are embracing policies and investments that limit greenhouse gas emissions, improve public transportation, and tackle water and air pollution. It’s not an exaggeration to say that cities are now at forefront of the sustainability movement.

LV: What do you imagine will happen, how will countries behave and what will the planet be like in 30 years?

MB: We cannot predict what will happen tomorrow – much less in 30 years. But certainly the major environmental trends are not encouraging. We know that water resources are being stretched. Forests are being threatened. Our climate is becoming less stable. For those reasons and more, we are at a critical moment, and we have a choice. We can continue down our current path – and face the consequences – or we can shift direction. A key question is whether we view sustainability in conflict with economic growth or as an enabler of inclusive and sustainable growth.

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