“Climate Justice has been Ignored”

Kamanthi Wickramasinghe – DAILYMIRROR

2021 Blue Planet Prize Laureate Prof. Mohan Munasinghe

The pandemic is just one shorter term problem among many others like poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and conflicts
Extreme events and disaster risks will rise, such as heat waves, heat stress, extreme rainfall with more flooding and landslides could be witnessed in the future

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe

Sri Lankan physicist and economist Prof. Mohan Munasinghe recently received the prestigious ‘Blue Planet’ award from Japan’s Asahi Glass Foundation — an international award considered equivalent to an Environmental Nobel Prize. Prof. Munasinghe has developed innovative concepts such as the integrative, trans-disciplinary Sustainomics framework, Balanced Inclusive Green Growth (BIGG) and Millennium Consumption Goals (MCG).
In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Prof. Munasinghe shared his thoughts about impacts of climate change, sustainable post-pandemic recovery, and his vision for Sri Lanka.

Q How do you feel about receiving the 2021 Blue Planet Prize?

I felt deeply grateful and honoured when I received the award notification from Japan, and even a little surprised – why me, since there were other colleagues worldwide, who also had outstanding credentials. While meditating that morning (which I have done daily for over 50 years), I realized how the award is not just one person’s achievement, and how indebted I am to so many who have contributed generously to my intellectual development and emotional intelligence, including teachers, mentors, colleagues, family and friends. The pressures of COVID-19 further remind us that social ties are invaluable, and should never be taken for granted.

It was quite encouraging that the award committee has specifically acknowledged several key concepts I developed and their practical application worldwide, during almost 5 decades, including the Sustainomics framework, sustainable development triangle (economy, environment, society), balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG), and Millennium Consumption Goals (MCG).

On reflection, my research interests have evolved from basic disciplines like engineering, physics and economics,

to application sectors like energy, water, transport, ICT, and environmental resources, and finally to multidisciplinary topics like poverty, disasters, climate change and sustainable development. This eclectic personal journey helped me develop Sustainomics, as a holistic, trans-disciplinary methodology.Drawing on my past work and the global platform provided by the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, I hope to continue my modest efforts to make our planet more sustainable for all.

Q You have worked many years in the fields of sustainable development and climate change. Are you satisfied with how humanity has performed in bringing about changes in these two areas?

The current world status is summed up by the two major international achievements of 2015 — the United Nations 2030 Agenda and sustainable development goals (SDG), and the COP21 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The progress made so far is disappointing.In fact, we are even further behind compared to the high hopes I had when we launched the historic Agenda 21 and UNFCCC at the 1992 UN earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Q Indeed, the UN SDGs and COP21 Paris Agreement of 2015 are major global accords where your research and applications made significant contributions. What’s the impact such events have had in helping us to address sustainable development and climate change issues?

Both agreements are early steps on a long human journey towards sustainability and climate stability. However, we have failed to achieve significant milestones in recent years. Progress on the SDG are quite limited at best, and country pledges on carbon mitigation are far below the levels needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C° or even 2C°, which are considered dangerous thresholds. Furthermore, adaptation efforts are also inadequate to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, who will unfairly suffer the harshest climate impacts. Basically, climate justice has been ignored, which requires that the rich (who caused the problem) should bear the main cost burden, while the poorest must be protected from impacts.

Q You introduced the key concept of ‘Sustainomics’. Tell us a little about it…

Sustainomics is a comprehensive and integrated trans-disciplinary framework, which I first presented at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It sets out a step-by-step methodology to make development more sustainable, based on balanced consideration of economic, social and environmental concerns, using trans-disciplinary thinking and a range of analytical tools. During the past two decades, the approach has been successfully applied practically, worldwide. The four core principles are:

  1. The sustainable development triangle –integrating and harmonizing the three dimensions (economic, social and environmental). Any critical sustainable development issue like poverty may be analysed in terms of all three dimensions, and their interactions – for example, the poor are economically destitute,socially disempowered, and live in environmentally degraded neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the social and economic interaction results in increased inequalities.
  2. ‘Making Development More Sustainable’ (MDMS), which is essentially using a step-by-step method that empowers people to take immediate action without waiting for instructions from leaders. You and I could simply identify and eliminate many existing unsustainable activities – by conserving energy and water, planting trees, etc.
  3. Transcending traditional boundaries in our thinking, to bring about sustainable behavioural changes in the longer term. Replacing unsustainable values like greed with sound ethical principles, especially among the young, must go hand in hand with raising awareness across every sector of society.Implementing sustainable development requires cooperation that transcends stakeholder boundaries – across government, business and civil society.Trans-disciplinary analysis is essential, and we must transcend geographic scaleswith global level planning and temporal scales over decades or centuries.
  4. Full life cycle, integrated,long-term analysis to ensure implementation of sustainable development activities, especially consumption and production — that covers the entire value/supply chain, identifying hot spots where process innovation can improve sustainability, reducing material use, and eliminating waste.

“One important lesson is that the anthropause is an unsustainable outcome, because it violates the first core concept of Sustainomics, by severely unbalancing the sustainable development triangle”

Q Many are of the view that the COVID-19 pandemic helped restore the environment and give nature a break. Do you think the pandemic is a blessing in disguise or has it posed more challenges in achieving the SDG?

The term “anthropause” has been coined to describe temporary improvements in various environmental indicators (especially carbon dioxide emissions) that followed COVID-19 lockdowns. However, I strongly disagree that a disease that has already killed millions worldwide and greatly increased poverty, inequality, unemployment and hardship, could be called a “blessing in disguise”. On the contrary, the pandemic should be considered a cautionary lesson about Mother Nature’s harsh response to human environmental abuse – I have described 9 lessons learned, in a 2020 journal article: “COVID-19 and sustainable development”.

One important lesson is that the anthropause is an unsustainable outcome, because it violates the first core concept of Sustainomics, by severely unbalancing the sustainable development triangle. While the pandemic may have temporarily improved environmental conditions, the economic and social costs are very high, with impacts falling disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable. Indeed, the achievement of many key SDG have been set back significantly due to socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
Fortunately, there are other and more benign ways to reduce environmental resource use, without drastically reducing living standards, through an approach called the “balanced inclusive green growth” (BIGG) path, as described below.

Q Can a country become fully sustainable in this competitive global environment, particularly in the face of a pandemic?

The pandemic is just one shorter term problem among many others (like poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and conflicts), on a rocky long term path towards sustainable development. SDG12 on Responsible Consumption and Production is a key sustainability requirement for which the Millennium Consumption Goals (MCG) I introduced at the UN in 2010, was a key building block.The MCG sought to reduce the unsustainable consumption of the rich which was exceeding the sustainable eco-capacity of the planet, while leaving inadequate resources to reduce poverty and inequality. It facilitates balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG — based on Sustainomics), to help countries become more sustainable. Several countries are trying to pursue BIGG paths.
Rich nations at point C are already unsustainable and exceeding safe ecological limits. They should take one step towards sustainability by first balancing economy and environment. They can reach sustainable point E by reducing environmental resource use without lowering their quality of life,as envisaged in the MCG–using new resource efficient technologies, lifestyle changes, and other measures, to dematerialize modern economies. Meanwhile, emerging nations at intermediate point B should learn from the past, innovate and avoid exceeding safe limits. They could go through the Green Growth (GG) tunnel to also reach point E, avoiding the unsustainable path of the rich countries.

However, we need to go beyond Green Growth, to ensure that social goals are met. In the second step,the BIGG path also adds pro-poor and inclusive policies to Green Growth–thereby fully harmonizing the sustainable development triangle: economy, environment and society. Furthermore, the same BIGG path is generally available for other types of resources like energy, food and water.

Q Like every other country Sri Lanka too is a victim of climate change. Has climate change changed Sri Lanka’s weather patterns, food production cycles, and lifestyles?

It is too early to identify major impacts in Sri Lanka that are unambiguously attributable to climate change, but some preliminary trends in temperature and precipitation are emerging. We experience warming of around 0.8°C during the 20th century, with temperature rise accelerating toward the end. This trend will continue. Meanwhile, annual precipitation has decreased about 7% in the late 20thcentury, compared to the period 1931–1960. However, future rainfall is projected to rise, especially in the hills.

Extreme events and disaster risks will rise, with future increases in heat waves and permanent (chronic) heat stress. The intensity of extreme rainfall events is likely to rise, with more flooding (both inland and coastal areas) and landslides (especially in the hill country). By the 2030s, floods would affect thousands of people, with annual GDP losses exceeding US$300 million. Paradoxically, droughts will worsen especially in the dry zone, with reduced rainfall, river basin flows and reservoir storage. Finally, cyclone frequency has declined recently, but their intensity has increased, underlining the need for future disaster risk management. More broadly, nine vulnerable sectors were identified in recent consultations — food security, water, coastal sector, health, human settlements, bio-diversity, tourism and recreation, export development and industry-energy-transportation.

Q What three things should Sri Lanka keep in mind, as it is becoming a geopolitically important location with developments such as the Port City?

In order to become a “sustainable, upper middle income Indian Ocean hub” following the BIGG path, as envisaged in the Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision report (described below), we should aim to:

  1. Maximize the geo-strategic advantages of our unique location and emulate the success of ports like Dubai to the west and Singapore to the East, by taking the lead in focused areas like digital and financial technology and banking, port and maritime facilities, high-end tourism(nature- and culture-based), etc., while greatly upgrading our infrastructure services in critical areas like energy, water, communications, skilled workforce (especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM), etc.
  2. Provide improved governance, including policy consistency, fair and investor-friendly regulations, convenience in doing business, tax incentives, etc.
  3. Follow a strictly non-aligned foreign policy – carefully balancing major international forces, supporting a multi-polar world order, and riding the wave of rising Asian dominance in this century (paying attention to China, India, Japan, Russia and other emerging Asian powers), while maintaining cordial relations with our major markets in the west. Q You are also the first Sri Lankan to share the Nobel Peace Prize. Is there enough space in Sri Lanka for intellectuals to grow and contribute to the wellbeing of the country? Or has Sri Lanka continued to facilitate a brain drain? Tell us your experiences.

Sri Lankans have consistently excelled internationally — having enjoy ededucational advantages much superior to most comparable developing countries. However, this edge is now eroding and we need to seriously revamp our entire educational system to compete in the modern world. Focusing on STEM subjects is critical, but new areas like emotional intelligence, sustainability, and multi-disciplinarity are also important to produce practical, rational, well-rounded citizens who can contribute to sustainable development along the BIGG path (as detailed in the Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision report described below).

The brain drain is not unique to Sri Lanka. We must strive to make our country attractive to our youth, so that they either stay here and grow intellectually, or return after a stint abroad bringing fresh intellectual and financial capital to their motherland. Above all, building a true Sri Lankan identity from an early age, will help enormously.
One small practical contribution is through my institute (MIND). Since 2000, our scholarships have funded almost 500 undergraduates. We also hosted many graduate students as “fellows”, and supported some school-goers (especially 2004 Tsunami-orphans). We maintain contact via digital technology with this MIND family, as “ambassadors of sustainable development” who will transform Sri Lanka and the world. To reach young minds, I also continue to deliver sustainable development university courses, public lectures, webinars, etc. To reach millions of young hearts, I helped found Sustainomusica (at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012) — a musicians network harmonizing the planet by creating “music for sustainability”.

Q Where do you see Sri Lanka in another 10-20 years’ time? As a country that braces to become a sustainable nation or a country that has moved away from it?

Sri Lanka could become a world leader in sustainable development, provided we immediately start following the comprehensive recommendations in 2019 Presidential Expert Committee (PEC) report on “Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision and Strategic Path”.
This document describes the country status, key issues and opportunities relating to sustainable development, future priorities and targets, and new initiatives and options to achieve ambitious goals by 2030. The report empowers citizens, and provides guidance to government, civil society and business. The key findings are essentially robust and neutral, helping to build the national consensus and a truly Sri Lankan identity — irrespective of ethnicity, race, religion or political affiliation. The report could continue to provide strategic guidance to all present and future governments, while strengthening sustainability and national unity.
By 2030 Sri Lanka would become a sustainable, upper middle income Indian Ocean hub that is economically prosperous, competitive and advanced; environmentally green and flourishing; and socially inclusive, harmonious, peaceful and just.

Q How can one expect to see change from individual, national and global perspectives?

It is important to start with oneself, before trying to save the planet– by “harmonizing the personal sustainability triangle”and becoming a mature, content and well-balanced individual. There are three key elements including: (1) good career and income: (2) robust physical health; and (3) thriving social links including family and friends;to build a wholesome and decent persona, having both emotional and mental intelligence. Balancing these three internal elements will create a global population that can build a sustainable planet more effectively.

From a planetary perspective, the impacts of global issues like COVID-19 and climate change are “mother nature’s” feedback loops, reminding us that human activities are environmentally unsustainable. We need to correct the “unhealthy” relationship between ecological and socio economic systems. If we do not change, it will not be the end of the world. The earth will certainly continue as it has for billions of years, but perhaps with a diminished human presence or none – a relatively minor blip in the greater scheme of things.

However, from our narrower, human-centric viewpoint, matters look more serious. Returning to a pre-pandemic, business-as-usual path is unsustainable. Adopting limited reforms (due to inertia of existing power structures) will merely stave off disaster temporarily. Only a transformative path like BIGG offers a safe and sustainable future for all. By adopting rational, science-based approaches and working together, we can make this third (and right) choice, to avoid enormous suffering and millions of unnecessary deaths in the future.

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