Economic Growth and Sustainable Development – Irreconcilable Opposites?

Those wishing to undermine the UK’s climate change mitigation agenda as useless can do so with just one word: China. Or maybe two: China and India. In this article, which first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) I probe the assumption that economic growth and sustainable development have to be at loggerheads and introduce a new initiative called India: Innovation Nation.

Is it immoral to expect emerging economies to commit to curbing their environmental impact, potentially stifling growth and trapping billions in poverty? Or is it immoral not to, given ever-bleaker climate change projections and the state of the world’s natural resources? Moral or otherwise, views on this subject are unhelpfully polarised: some argue that urban growth, airport expansion and coal-fired power stations are non-negotiable in improving the quality of life in the developing world; others insist that our only hope of saving the planet rests with stringent carbon emissions reduction targets for growing giants like India and China. Among the latter camp, applause for the existing carbon intensity targets announced by both countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is muted at best. Meanwhile, a new global climate deal will not be struck until 2015, and the contribution of the developing world is far from finalised.

But do economic growth and safeguarding the environment have to be incompatible? The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit – now in its 13th year – is based on the conviction that they don’t. The flagship event of Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), it provides an international platform for a diverse group of state premiers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to debate critical issues relating to energy and the environment. Regular highlights include a special summit for global CEOs and a Sustainable Development Leadership Award (previous recipients have included Ban Ki-moon and Arnold Schwarzenegger). This year’s events are grouped into sub-themes including “Employment and growth potential of a green economy” and “Choices before the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and a new economic construct”. The latter is framed around the search for a new paradigm of growth with low resource requirement and minimal pollution, and takes its rallying cry from Gandhi: speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

Whatever their value, targets and paradigms can seem offputtingly remote, and practical examples are usually a more inspiring call to action. One new initiative being launched at this year’s summit is dedicated to just that. India: Innovation Nation is a collaboration between TERI and global non-profit Forum for the Future and centres round a special publication celebrating success stories of sustainable innovation in India.

Browsing the publication, it is not difficult to feel enthused by the wealth of examples. Air conditioning, for instance, is responsible for 30-40% of India’s domestic energy consumption, but cooling doesn’t have to be so resource intensive. Technology consultant Infosys’ new Hyderabad campus comprises two identical wings, one with conventional air conditioning, the other with a “radiant cooling” system which draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water. Not only does the wing with radiant cooling consume 38% less energy than its air conditioned neighbour, but its capital spend was fractionally lower and, according to occupant surveys, it is a much more comfortable place to work. Meanwhile, microgrids – local electricity networks powered by renewable sources such as solar and biomass – are springing up over India, providing power cheaply and reliably for the first time to remote communities and casting doubt on the paradigm that fossil-fuels are a pre-requisite for modernizing societies.

India: Innovation Nation tells an inspiring story, but I can’t help wondering how widespread such examples really are across India. Martin Wright, spearheading the initiative from Forum for the Future, stresses its role as a blueprint in demonstrating persuasively that there are practical and profitable alternatives to the dominant model of high-carbon, resource intensive growth. He argues that India is an intrinsically innovative culture and has pedigree in spreading new technologies and ideas. Mobile phones are a classic case, with many remote Indian villages now supporting better networks than parts of rural England! Moreover, so much of what we would label “green living” in the West – recycling, low energy consumption and low car ownership – is commonplace in India, a country well-versed in the art of jugaad, variously translatable as “muddling through”, “quick-fix” or the rather more respectable “frugal innovation”. Unfortunately, the trend among the mushrooming middle class is to move away from this low-impact lifestyle towards more conspicuous patterns of consumption. Part of India’s challenge will be to make sustainable living desirable while putting measures in place to reduce the damage that inevitable new waves of consumerism will cause.

Targets, paradigms, blueprints and a deeply-ingrained flair for jugaad – all of these will be necessary if India is going to embrace a new model of economic growth that doesn’t help destroy the planet. Endeavours like the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and India: Innovation Nation aren’t the whole solution – especially when we broaden the debate to China, Brazil and other emerging economies – but they provide a vital shred hope that such a model is possible.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was held between January 31st and February 2nd 2013 at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi. For more information about Forum for the Future’s work in India, visit: www.forumforthefuture.org/india and www.greenfutures.org.uk/innovationnation

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