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Some of these changes will be relatively painless for society, while others will undoubtedly strike even the most concerned citizens as radical.
In the recently published report, “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review,” Indian-British economist and professor Sir Partha Dasgupta seeks to both diagnose and solve the climate change crisis. Taking an economic approach, Dasgupta’s solutions rely on a fundamental shift in the way nature’s worth is calculated.
The first part of TMS’s summary of the Dasgupta Review focuses on the broad thesis of the report. Relying on extensive research and academic input from economists, ecologists and other experts, Dasgupta lays out a case for thinking of the natural world as an asset (“natural capital”), one that has consistently been undervalued and misunderstood.
Most of the 600-page full report is devoted to laying out that argument, providing detailed analysis of markets, trade, national gross domestic products and other economic concepts tied to nature and its “depreciation” due to climate change.
The report also provides a warning about the unsustainability of current trends: “Estimates of our total impact on Nature suggest that we would require 1.6 Earths to maintain the world’s current living standards.”
The final section of the report, titled “The Road Ahead,” relies on Dasgupta’s economic conception of nature to present solutions for addressing the impact of climate change. In Dasgupta’s words, “The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it.”
The Dasgupta Review’s solutions for climate change
While the Dasgupta Review discusses recycling, reforestation efforts, pollution taxes and other already common methods for combating climate change, the unique solutions put forth in the report involve changing behaviors on micro and macro levels. Some of these changes will be relatively painless for society, while others will undoubtedly strike even the most concerned citizens as radical.
To skeptics who would downplay the damaging effects of climate change or suggest that technological advances could mitigate it, Dasgupta explains, “It is less costly to conserve Nature than it is to restore it.”
Dasgupta’s solutions, summarized below, fall under three categories of action and address how the natural world can be protected through both personal and collective action.
Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.
“Breaking the links between damaging forms of consumption and production and Nature can be accelerated through a range of policies that change prices and behavioural norms,” Dasgupta writes.
Among those norms that Dasgupta warns will need to change are diets reliant on meat and high rates of reproduction.
“Estimates suggest that if diets shifted away from animal products,” the report says, “it would be possible to feed the world’s present population with as little as 50% of current agricultural land.” Plant-centered diets and lab-produced meat alternatives are proposed solutions.
Addressing food production issues will also help with another major issue: a growing global population. Even low estimates say the global population will rise to nearly 10 billion by the second half of the 21st century. That reality will be among the biggest challenges for reversing climate change as humans as a species are uniquely capable of causing widespread environmental transformations.
Dasgupta says the best method for addressing that concern is making reproductive health education widely available and ensuring women around the world have access to contraception.
“As a route to accelerating the demographic transitions, investment in community-based family planning and reproductive health programmes should now be regarded as essential.”
While much of the population growth in the world is occurring in the developing world (or “low income countries”), Dasgupta warns it is the wealthier nations that will most need to change their behaviors, especially as it relates to consumption. Though wealth has increased across the planet, Dasgupta warns the affluence of first-world countries is not viable at a global level.
“A recent study found that while nutrition, sanitation and the elimination of extreme poverty could be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries, the universal achievement of contemporary lifestyles in high income countries would require resources several times the sustainable level.”
Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.
Another major shift prescribed by the report is adapting our idea of wealth to include nature. Generally, wealth is measured in produced capital (e.g., roads, buildings) and, to a lesser degree, human capital (e.g., health, education). Dasgupta argues for the inclusion of “natural capital” to provide a more accurate concept of the economy.
“By measuring our wealth in terms of all assets, including natural assets, ‘inclusive wealth’ provides a clear and coherent measure that corresponds directly with the well-being of current and future generations. This approach accounts for the benefits from investing in natural assets and illuminates the trade-offs and interactions between investments in different assets.”
This isn’t just a metaphorical idea. Dasgupta recommends including natural capital in national accounting systems. Nature’s monetary value and intrinsic worth should be calculated as part of the economy, not as a separate entity that must be considered in isolation.
This would include environmental taxes that would serve as punishment for activities that damage nature while also putting a measurable monetary value on a nation’s natural resources.
More fundamentally, though, nations will need to rethink how they approach the concept of productivity. As Dasgupta writes, “Improving and using measures of productivity that account for the use of, and impact on, Nature are crucial if we are to understand what improved productivity means.”
Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.
“A significant portion of the responsibility for helping us to shift course will fall on the global financial system,” Dasgupta writes. “Governments, central banks, international financial institutions (such as Multilateral Development Banks) and private financial institutions all have a role to play in making the shift.”
Dasgupta lays the planet’s present condition squarely at the feet of these public and private institutions: “The reasons we are on our current path can be traced to institutional failure writ large – it is not merely a case of market failure – and the failure of contemporary conceptions of economic possibilities to acknowledge that we are embedded within Nature, we are not external to it.”
Those failures are the consequences of short-term thinking, a focus on the immediate value and wealth that is being accumulated with no thought of the long-term costs, especially as it relates to nature. So, what will compel these institutions to be less myopic? The input of consumers and citizens.
“Ultimately though, it is we citizens who can bring about such changes,” Dasgupta states. “As citizens, we need to demand and shape the change we seek.” That will mean no longer supporting institutions that abuse nature, but it will also require changes in personal behavior that will have broader impacts on those institutions.
Doing this will require the involvement of a citizenry aware of the value of nature and that is personally invested in its well-being. To that end, Dasgupta places the responsibility on educational institutions at every level, especially higher education: “There is every reason universities should require new students to attend a course on basic ecology.”
A global change
Ultimately, Dasgupta compares the wide-ranging policy and personal adjustments to another moment in history with a global impact: post-World War II and the creation of the Marshall Plan. Also known as the European Recovery Program, the Marshall Plan (named after then-United States Secretary of State George Marshall) was an ambitious set of policies aimed at lifting postwar Europe out of ruins.
“If we are to enhance the supply of natural capital and reduce our demands on the biosphere, large-scale changes will be required, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination and political will at least as great as those of the Marshall Plan.”
For those who still question whether there is the economic will to fund these changes, Dasgupta points to the most glaring example of climate change’s impact: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are wider benefits,” Dasgupta explains, “including lowering the risks of societal catastrophes in relation to human health – not least the risks of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases.”
One study found that the estimated total cost of addressing COVID-19 will be 50 times more expensive than a decade-long effort “to monitor and prevent disease spillover (which is driven by wildlife trade and by loss and fragmentation of tropical forests).” Dasgupta argues for including ecological investments in COVID-19 stimulus efforts.
Whatever choices individuals, corporations and governments make, it’s clear that making no changes is not a viable option.
“If ‘business’ continues as before,” Dasgupta warns, “consumption in high income countries and in the emerging high-middle and low-middle income countries is projected to remain the main factor driving the world’s ecological footprint.”
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