New Delhi, India – Since 2008, Indian banker-turned-environmentalist Pavan Sukhdev has been warning the world about the kind of climate catastrophe currently unfolding in countries such as Brazil and Australia.
On Monday, Sukhdev, 59, was awarded this year’s Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, often called the “Nobel prize for environment“, for “revolutionising how decision-makers would come to view the natural world”.
Sukhdev, who shares the prestigious award with Gretchen Daily, a conservation biologist from the United States, is the third Indian in the last decade to receive the award, instituted in 1973.
In August last year, fires razed more than 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of forest within the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of the world. The forest had not burned like that in the last decade.
A month later, more than 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of land burned in Australia, killing 30 and leading to the loss of more than a billion animals. The Australian bushfires were 46 percent larger than the Amazon fires.
Some 2,000 homes were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in Australia. The total damages and economic loss will exceed $100bn, according to Accuweather, a US-based media firm that provides commercial weather forecasting.
— Tyler Prize (@TylerPrize) January 27, 2020
A different part of the world erupted in unprecedented protests a month later against the government’s decision to cut down a forest to build a metro railways shade in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, known as the Aarey forest controversy.
“Local NGOs had demonstrated convincingly that the metro train sheds could be built elsewhere, without ecological losses to Aarey, but it seemed that the temptation of land-grab from nature was apparently too much. This is a familiar story in India and elsewhere,” Sukhdev told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
In 2011, Sukhdev had delivered a TED Talk in which he warned of gradual degradation and depletion of the natural capital or ecological services such as minerals, water, arable land, habitat, fossil fuels and biodiversity required to support life on the planet.
Using the example of the Amazon rainforests, he said it fed “an agricultural economy worth $240bn in Latin America”. But he asked how much do Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and indeed the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil pay for that vital input?
“And the answer is zilch, exactly zero,” he said, warning it cannot go on “because economic incentives and disincentives are very powerful”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera about his 2011 TED Talk, Sukhdev said it was not prophetic.
“Science is not prophecy, it’s about understanding the natural world and I understand the natural world; it’s about understanding the way things work in nature,” he said. “It’s really for the people of Brazil to decide if they value the rainforests or not.”
A major cause of Amazon fires, experts said, is due to deforestation, particularly the fires started by humans to clear land.
“If they don’t understand this, if they don’t recognise the fact that small changes in forest cover can lead to very dramatic changes in precipitation, then they can end up wrecking their entire agricultural economy,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sukhdev’s work – from leading the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Green Economy Initiative in 2009 to his work with some Indian states in the 2000s – has been driven by an urgent need to make the world understand the consequences of taking nature for granted.
But it was his selection as leader of the United Nations-led Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study that his work really gained a global significance.
The first TEEB study, published in 2008, estimated that the world was losing its natural capital to the tune of two-to-four trillion dollars every year. It pointed out that global development came at a huge environmental and human cost mostly borne by the world’s poorest.
“His work, particularly with UNEP’s TEEB and Green Economy Initiative led to extraordinary improvements in our understanding of the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity”, Tyler Prize committee’s chairperson Julia Marton-Lefevre said in a statement.
“Using economic instruments to measure what we get from nature may make us take nature’s services more seriously.”
Roots of inspiration
Sukhdev, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, put his 25 years of financial markets experience to good use to calculate the consequences of environmental decline.
He has helped politicians and business leaders understand the consequences of their policy and business choices, and change the way they looked at the natural world and formulated growth strategies.
“People who claim there is a ‘trade-off’ between environmental responsibility on one hand and economic and social development are simply misstating facts. These people are either uneducated about the increasing success of ‘green development’ models, or they are merely lying because they are paid by vested commercial interests,” he told Al Jazeera.
On January 22 during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Sukhdev launched two digital platforms to help businesses measure their environmental impact.
Ideas took shape in rural India
As president of the World Wide Fund for Nature since 2017, Sukhdev’s passion for sustainable development took shape in rural India.
“Some of my understanding of the importance of nature to the poor comes from my early life in India, from living close to poverty, frequent travels into the countryside, and visiting my uncle’s farm in Rajasthan,” he said.
“All these elements of upbringing and my subsequent engagement with NGOs in India helped build in me a sense of how important nature is to the poor.”
In TEEB, he said, this dependency is called the “GDP of the poor” or the “GDP of the village”.
While villagers are poor in terms of income, he said, they are not poor in terms of what he called the “human wellbeing quotient”.
“They have deep community bonds and family support systems. What they don’t have is a fair wage and that’s where nature comes in. It provides security and a degree of sustenance, which is extremely vital to developing the village economy of India,” he told Al Jazeera.
To grow in a sustainable manner, Sukhdev thinks India will need to focus on its village economy and natural farming processes rooted in traditional Indian methods.
“Zero Budget Natural Farming implemented in Andhra Pradesh is a successful example and it is scaling fast,” he said, referring to an agricultural practice adopted by nearly 580,000 farmers in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
The practice focuses on the natural growth of crops without adding any fertilisers and pesticides and has proved to be effective in addressing the uncertainties of climate change.
Sukhdev said the practice could lead to higher income, less health damage, a reduction in use of water and lower carbon emissions. He believed the next generation would take the lead in conserving nature.
“Today’s youth are determined to change humanity from being planetary locusts to being planetary stewards,” he told Al Jazeera. “[But] will their short-sighted parents and elected leadership leave this generation with a future worth living?”