Environment and Sustainable Development

There are certain inexorable forces guiding human behavior. Man will try to make his life easier and more comfortable whatever may be his circumstances. In fact, since the beginning of civilization, man has tried to control the environment in which he lives, to shape it or even transform it to suit his needs. He has logged timber and cleared forests, drained marshes, embanked and dammed rivers, in order to provide himself with shelter, livelihood and safety.

In the river valleys of the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (literally between the rivers) and the Indus, he controlled and used river water for agriculture and saved himself from the daily chore of finding food. He was thus able to engage in various physical and intellectual pursuits and developed the first great civilizations.

Nile River at Cairo

Whereas adapting to the forces of nature is the norm in the plant and animal kingdoms, man has constantly striven to make his life easier and comfortable by changing the environment. In the words of the Stockholm declaration (1972), 'Man is both creature and molder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.' Man's relationship with nature has been both harmonious and antagonistic. The impact of human activities on the environment was, however, not significant as long as the human population was small and the means at his disposal limited.

The Industrial Revolution followed by a near explosive growth in population has changed the face of the planet. The human population, which registered a slow increase over centuries, reached one billion in 1804. Thanks to the application of science and technology, longevity has since continuously increased. The second billion was reached in only 123 years. The pace kept accelerating and the population leapt from 5 billion to 6 billion in 1999 in only 12 years. Although fertility rates are declining, by the current trends the population would reach 9 billion by 2050 and stabilize only after 2080. Meeting the basic needs of the increasing population and perhaps more importantly, the demand for material prosperity have placed an enormous strain on our resources. The resultant agricultural and industrial growth as well as urbanization has also severely damaged the environment. We see around us today growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: Dead water bodies, polluted aquifers; acid rain, ozone hole, climate change; desertification; extinction of species and loss of biodiversity, etc.

The world woke up to the danger of environmental pollution with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. She showed in 1962 how DDT had devastated the ecology and posed a serious threat to human beings. While many countries have banned DDT, in India we still cannot do without it. In fact the world over, agriculture has become more dependent on chemicals. The use of chemicals in agriculture has destroyed entire eco-systems not only on land but also in the rivers and water bodies, which receive the run-off. An example of a major breakdown of the ecological system is the shrinking of the great inland lake, Aral Sea. During the 60's and 70's large quantities of water were diverted for irrigation from the Amu Darya and the Sir Darya which fed the Aral Sea. By 2007 the lake had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into three separate lakes, two of which were too salty for fish to live in. The receding waters left behind miles of salty, man-made desert. The unique wildlife of the delta comprising boar, deer, jackals, even tigers was devastated. Drinking water in the region became salty and polluted with fertilizers and pesticides, causing alarming increases in birth defects, miscarriages, kidney damage and cancer.

A report published in 1990 stated that the incidence of esophageal cancer in some communities near the Aral Sea had increased to seven times the national level in the then Soviet Union. Today, the runoff from the farms of the central United States has turned the Gulf of Mexico into almost a dead sea. In many parts of our country, chemicals from farmland have leached into even deep aquifers'. Industries manufacturing chemicals are also prone to Major accident hazards. Uncontrolled runaway reactions as in Seveso and Bhopal and dumping of chemicals in the Minamata Bay and Love Canal and accidents in transporting hazardous chemicals have caused great losses of lives, debilitating diseases and long lasting poisoning of land and water.
The expansion of agriculture and industrial activities has increased green house gas emissions. The release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into atmosphere apart from contributing to the green house effect, has caused a hole in the ozone layer around the earth. Both have serious consequences for the future of life in the planet. While the increase in GHG leads to global warming, the hole in ozone layer over Antarctica allows harmful cosmic rays to reach the surface of the earth leading to a higher incidence of cancer.


The notion of greenhouse effect in global climate goes back to Joseph Fourier 150 years ago. He guessed that the atmosphere lets in the sun's heat quickly but releases it into the space only slowly. The key green house gases are water vapor and carbon dioxide; if they did not create a green house, the earth's surface would be a chilly -20 degrees Celsius. Life may not have been impossible, but certainly life as we know, would not exist.

The strength of the green house effect depends on the chemical composition of the atmosphere because the phenomenon is due to the absorption of infrared radiation by various gases in the air. Alter the levels of those gases and you alter the level of the effect. We have been doing just that by pumping methane, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons and especially carbon dioxide for a century or more. The current stock of GHG's in the atmosphere is equivalent to 430 parts per million of CO2, compared to only 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

Climate change owing to the increase in GHG's in the atmosphere is no longer a hypothesis now but a proven theory. The earth's surface temperature has risen by about half a degree since 1975. According to the report of Sir Nicholas Stern released by the British Government in October 2006, 'on current trends, average global temperatures would rise by 2-3 degrees Celsius within the next 50 years or so. The Earth will be committed to several degrees more warming if emissions continue to grow.'

The report states that the warming will have severe impacts often mediated through water:
Melting of glaciers would initially increase flood risk, and then strongly reduce water supplies, eventually threatening one sixth of the world's population, predominantly in the Indian subcontinent, parts of China and the Andes in South America.

Crop yield would decline especially in Africa. At mid to high latitudes, yields would increase with a temperature increase of 2-3 degrees but then would decline with larger amounts of warming. At 4 degree and above increase, global food supply would be severely affected.

Sea levels would rise on account of thermal expansion of sea water and the partial melting of glaciers and ice packs. With 3-4 degree Celsius warming, low lying coastal areas in Bangladesh, Vietnam and many other countries as well as many islands will go under water. Coastal cities like New York, London, Tokyo and Cairo would be threatened.

Heat waves will be more frequent and more intense. Droughts and wildfires will occur more often. And as habitat changes or is destroyed, species will be pushed to extinction. There would be an increase in the incidence of vector related diseases like malaria and dengue (through mosquitoes), yellow fever, kalazar and encephalitis. An increase in temperature and humidity would also lead to a higher incidence of diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, cholera and typhoid. Floods and droughts, accompanying climate change, would cause epidemics of these water borne diseases.

Ozone Hole

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were developed in the 1930's, were considered magic chemicals. They are non-toxic, non-flammable and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. They are also thermodynamically stable. They found wide commercial uses particularly in refrigeration and air-conditioning.

Now these magic chemicals when released in the air drift upward to the stratosphere. They change their character and attack ozone molecules. The thin layer of ozone, which envelops the earth in the stratosphere, is damaged by a chain reaction that starts off at the end of the cold winter of Antarctic. The ozone layer plays a role in screening solar radiation. As we know the solar radiation contains ultraviolet radiation. UV-A, which is closest to the visible spectrum, is not harmful, but UV-B and UV-C are progressively more dangerous. The ozone layer cuts out UV-B allowing only 2-3% reaching the earth. UV-C is also absorbed by ozone, though oxygen plays the main role. By filtering out the most dangerous part of the sun's radiation, the ozone layer protects animal and plant life.

An analysis of the factors adversely affecting environment shows that in industrialized countries they are related to urbanization, industrialization and mass production and in general, unthinking use of technology. In the developing countries, on the other hand, the increase in population and poverty are more important factors. Over-exploitation of natural resources on account of these factors leads to degradation of soil, desertification, accumulation of wastes, depletion of water resources and urban squalor. More than one billion people presently lack access to clean drinking water, and two billion people lack access to proper sanitation.

The lack of clean water and sanitation is blamed for causing more than three quarters of diseases. More than seven million children die every year, due to water related diseases, i.e., diarrhea, cholera and dysentery. In addition, every year in developing countries, one million people die from urban air pollution and two million from exposure to stove smoke inside their homes. All told, premature deaths and illnesses arising from environmental factors account for about one fifth of all diseases in poor countries, bigger than any preventable factor, including malnutrition. In other words, poverty is both the cause and the effect of environmental problems. The developing world is caught up in a vicious circle' for one hand, poverty must be eradicated to improve environment and on the other hand, the process of removal of poverty, may foul the air, the land and the water.

Gandhi had a deep appreciation of the environmental impact of development. He had said: 'The earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed.' He had also said 'God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the West'It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?'

In tune with the Gandhian analysis, the Club of Rome alerted us in 1972 to the possibility of severe depletion of resources and limits to economic growth. There was also a realization that the time had come to take urgent action to protect the environment. In the same year 1972 the first major conference on environment was held in Stockholm called the UN Conference on the Human Environment. In India the Stockholm Conference led to a series of enactments on environment and the formation of the Central and the State Pollution Control Boards The protection of environment was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy and the Fundamental Duties in our Constitution by the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976. The Stockholm Conference highlighted the problems of pollution, destruction of resources, damage to the environment and the danger to species. It also stressed the need to enhance social well being of the population particularly the millions who live far below the minimum levels required for a decent human existence. It made a remarkable effort to link environment and development that led to the deliberations of The Brundtland Commission (1987) and the international agreements at the Rio Earth summit in 1992 and the Johannesburg summit in 2002.

The Brundtland Commission (1987) defined the term Sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The field of sustainable development can be conceptually broken into three constituent parts: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and socio-political sustainability. One cannot have one without the other two. The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, refers to them as "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars."

Strategy to achieve Sustainable Development

The main natural resources for human survival and welfare are agricultural land, forests, fisheries, pastures as well as energy and mineral sources. We must husband them efficiently with the least damage to the environment if we are to achieve sustainable development and leave the planet safe for our children.


Most critical resource for sustenance of the human population is energy. For a lack of time I shall omit discussion on sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries or forests and focus mainly on sustainable energy economy.

One clear precondition for a sustainable energy system is to reduce the dependence on oil and coal. This may be achieved by (a) developing alternative sources of energy, (b) using energy efficiently, and (c) re-using and recycling materials.

Development of Alternative Forms of Energy

The energy requirements will in future be met increasingly by nuclear energy and renewable energy sources. At one time nuclear power was out of favor because of its cost and lack of safety. You will recall the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (1986) which will remain a blot in our technological progress. The performance of the nuclear energy generation both in terms of cost and safety has, however, been improving significantly. In France, for example, nuclear power accounts for 80% of its total energy demand, while for various reasons it is only 3% in India. The scientific view is that nuclear energy will play a significant role in ensuring energy security. 
Areas rich in solar and wind resources will also depend increasingly on these free natural resources. Unlike today's huge refineries and power plants, the generation of energy from many types of renewable sources such as solar, wind or bio-mass can be decentralized leading to various kinds of economies and benefits to the environment.

The main sources of renewable energy are (i) hydro-electricity (ii) solar (iii) wind (iv) geo-thermal (v) tidal and (vi) bio-fuel and bio-mass. These generally, make better use of natural resources and are environment friendly. A blanket clearance will be unwise and each project must be examined for its environmental impact.

Efficient Use of Resources

Lowering the use of energy in buildings, factories and transportation systems not only reduces carbon emissions and saves precious fossil resources but also saves more money than it costs. With available technologies, one can easily phase out the oil guzzling automobiles and mandate cleaner and more energy efficient vehicles. Buildings are another major user of natural resources. In 2006 the buildings consumed 40% of the total consumption of energy in both the US and the European Union. Whilst the percentage would now be less in India, it would rise in future. Besides, we use up enormous amounts of topsoil to make bricks. We can reduce the use of mud built bricks, improve the insulation of air-conditioned buildings, admit natural light into them and make greater use of solar and other renewable energy sources. (It is a shame that we in India do not use our abundant sunlight by having skylights to light our buildings during daytime as we used to, nor heat water for cooking, washing and bathing, for it costs little extra money and only requires forethought at the stage of designing a building to use solar energy).

In view of the increasing price of fossil fuel and the reduction in the cost of electrical energy generated by photo-electric devices, solar powered appliances are fast becoming economically viable. We should also harvest rainwater for use in toilets and for watering lawns and washing cars and also for re-charging the aquifer.. This would save considerable energy used in pumping water, and also help conserve our fast depleting water resource. We still use Edison's incandescent bulbs...but a variety of new and more efficient light sources are in the market such as a Compact Fluorescent lamp (CFL) and a Lighting Emitting Diode (LED) lamp. We could leapfrog from kerosene to high tech cutting costs all round.

In order to promote the construction of Green buildings, the US has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to evaluate the environmental performance of a building over its entire life cycle. A similar system suited to the local conditions has been developed by TERI called GRIHA. Although the systems are voluntary, many companies opt to get accreditation for their new buildings to promote an environment friendly image.

Imaginative city planning can save considerable energy. According to a study made at the Cambridge University, more than half the total energy use is related in some way to spatial structure - the relative locations of homes, jobs and shopping sites (see 'Land Use Planning for Energy Efficiency' by Susan Owens, 1990). The zoning of residential areas, schools and workplaces should not be done mechanically and thought should be given to minimizing daily travel. Information Technology makes it possible to work from home and many organizations are adapting their work practices accordingly.

Losses in Transmission and Distribution of Electrical Energy

The loss on this account in many countries is so high that one is compelled to mention this leakage. India loses as much as about 35% of the electric energy through transmission and distribution, sharing the honors with Nigeria and Nicaragua. Japan and Germany set benchmarks in power transmission and distribution efficiency with overall loss levels of just 4 per cent. However, our figure may be misleading. The bulk of the loss is due to power pilferage and is contributing to the economy in some manner. Good technological performance can, however, reduce the actual technical loss which is about 12-13%% to, say 5%., not a negligible saving in terms of energy resources, carbon emission and human health.

Saving Resources by Reusing and Recycling Materials

A major area of concern is the emergence of the throwaway society. Unfortunately we are building our economy on the basis of consumption with the least regard to resource use and pollution.

Our grandmothers rarely discarded anything. Our mantra for goods and services should be: Reduce, Repair & re-use and Recycle.

The first option is to forego the use of things which cause pollution if one can do without it. While aesthetics and style have a place in life, much of packaging done with paper or plastic is quite unnecessary.

It is my view that before a new technology or a product is introduced, it must be thoroughly assessed in terms of overall costs and benefits. It was thoughtless to have introduced plastic carry bags and then ask people to discard them in favor of the traditional durable bazar bags. But better late than never.. San Francisco has declared itself plastic bags free. Our neighboring Bangladesh and even some states like Sikkim and Uttaranchal have understood the adverse effect of discarded plastic on drainage of water and land stability and have eliminated the use of these bags. We have had little success in doing it in West Bengal though our need is no less. 

Another example is writing instruments. We once wrote with fountain pens and the ink pot used to last a long time. Ball point pens replaced fountain pens. We threw away the exhausted ink tubes. Now you don't get refills unless it is a Parker or another branded pen; the ball point pens and gel pens are thrown away. At each stage we are adding to the garbage. Many people are digitally literate today and have given up pens for the key board. The printer attached to the computer runs on toner cartridges. The price of these cartridges is rising while that of the printer is falling with a corresponding fall in its longevity. Soon we will be chucking away the printer instead of the cartridge. We must reduce electronic waste which has already assumed alarming proportions.

I would also mention a practice which the Government had adopted during the Second World War of re-using envelopes by adding a disposable flap for the address. Now, irrespective of the secrecy or importance of communication, we gum, tape and staple envelopes which must be torn completely to get the content out.

In a consumerist society, little can be gained by advocating Gandhian austerity. Industrial products whether essential or not, will be manufactured and one must ensure that they cause the minimum pollution. Most materials are discarded after one use. We, however, do reuse glass beverage containers. This entails the expenditure of only 10% of the energy required in making a new bottle. Another option is recycling of the material to form a new product. which saves a large portion of the raw material and energy. Steel produced from scrap in electric arc furnaces requires only one third of the energy required for the original extraction from the ore. Aluminium, an extremely energy intensive product, can be recycled with 5% of the energy required for the production of the metal from bauxite. News print from recycled paper takes 25-60% less energy to make than from virgin wood pulp.

Re-use and recycling are a key to reducing land, air and water pollution. One example may suffice. According to an estimate, steel produced from scrap would reduce air pollution by 85%, cut down water pollution by 76% and eliminate mining waste altogether. My remarks on air pollution do not hold for sponge iron factories operating near Durgapur for one had to drive through a pall of smoke and pollutants near the factories on the National Highway.

In addition to re-using and recycling metal, glass or paper, there is an enormous scope of using human and animal waste to produce nutrients. An excellent example is the fisheries in the East Calcutta wetland. Sewage is made to flow into shallow ponds. It promotes the production of algae which are consumed by fish. Composting food and organic wastes provides an alternative to chemical fertilizers which have become an integral part of modern agriculture and are responsible for the pollution of land, water bodies and aquifers.

Environmental sustainability has to be seen not as it presents itself in individual cases but in the overall context of environment. I shall first give two simple examples from the traffic situation in this city in order to show that what appears at first sight to be an environment friendly choice is in the overall context quite the opposite. Trams that still run in Calcutta are thought to be environmentally friendly because they run on electricity and do not emit any noxious fumes (never mind the source of electricity). Their impact on the traffic is not, however, wholly beneficial. They slow down other traffic and increase the consumption of fuel and also the emission of pollutants by other vehicles. Thus persisting with the slow moving trams on narrow roads means additional fuel use and release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and also deterioration in the public health due to pollutants from vehicular emission. Another example is the tree versus road controversy. Trees no doubt store carbon, release oxygen and clean the air. They are aesthetic and soothing to the nerve. But if they are planted in the middle of a busy avenue and stand in the way of broadening the carriage way, one must carefully calculate the costs and benefits, for, as we have noted, slow traffic or traffic jams are detrimental to the environment and public health.

The most striking example of the need to look at environmental consequences systemically is provided by bio-fuel. Most governments and policy makers advocate the production of bio-fuel. Some of the main reasons are as follows: (a) Bio-fuels are derived from renewable sources unlike fossil fuels which are fast depleting. (b) Emissions from vehicles using bio-fuel contain markedly less carbon monoxide and particulate matter than those using fossil fuel and are entirely free of aromatic hydrocarbons (such as benzene, toluene and xylene), as well as lead and sulphur. (c) Bio-fuels can be produced in a decentralized manner-This would not only cut down the cost of transportation of fuel and also free its availability from geo- political uncertainties, as the main sources of oil are in politically volatile areas'

Now, however, a question is being asked whether bio-fuel is really environmentally friendly. The matter has gained an additional urgency because the recent steep increase in grain prices is attributed at least partially to the increased demand for bio-fuel. Many Governments chiefly the USA with a view to freeing themselves from the dependence on oil from the Middle East and limiting global warming are subsidizing the production of oil bearing crops. The policy has had undesirable consequences in certain respects. For instance, the production of corn from which ethanol is made uses up as much energy as the ethanol contains. Brazil is a pioneer in producing and using ethanol from sugarcane. The subsidy given to bio-fuel has also led to an alarming rate of clearance of the Amazonian forests for sugar cane cultivation. This deforestation has extremely adverse effects on both biodiversity and global warming. Besides, the diversion of land from food grains to oil bearing plants and the diversion of the use of agricultural produce from food to fuel have contributed to a sharp rise in international grain prices. Ultimately the stark choice may be between malnutrition and perhaps even starvation in poorer countries and easier availability of gas for transportation.

To be fair in this debate on biofuel, I must make two important clarifications.

First, the increase in grain prices is also due to other important factors. These are (i) a higher demand for grains by developing countries as their income level improves; (ii) preference for meat in place of grains in diet as incomes rise- (animals consume 700 calories of grains to produce 100 calories of meat. Thus the demand for grains has gone up sharply in China and Thailand) and (iii) increases in the cost of farming and transportation on account of higher prices of petroleum based products.

I must clarify another point so that we do not roundly condemn all bio-fuels and throw out the baby with the bath water.. Bio-fuel produced from Jatropha cannot attract the same criticism and its impact on environment is wholly positive. This hardy plant grows in semi-arid areas and leads to greening of land which was bereft of vegetation. Jatropha is not meant to replace any existing crops. Together with similar other crops it produces bio-fertilizers and provides decentralized sources of energy and finally causes less pollution when burnt than fossil fuels.

As to the means of implementation/enforcement of environment policies, these are:

- Regulatory instruments that mandate a specific behavior 
- Market-based instruments that act as incentives for particular activities 
- Information-based instruments that seek to change behavior through the provision of information

Regulatory Instruments

Since the inception of environmental policy, the predominant means for controlling pollution has been regulatory instruments. Usually, a public authority sets standards, and enforces compliance with these standards, punishing transgressions with formal legal sanction. The basic principle behind the regulations is that the person who manufactures a product must be made responsible for ensuring health and safety of the workmen, the consumers and the general public as well as the protection of the environment. This principle is embodied in statutes directly and also in the form of the polluter pays principle and the extended producer's responsibility (an extension of the polluter pays principle which makes the producer responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products and packaging) etc. In India there is no statutory backing for EPR. However, the principle of EPR was applied to the coca cola manufacturers in West Bengal to ensure the disposal of PET bottles used to bottle the drink as their Corporate social responsibility.

Market Based Instruments

The cost of a product does not include the cost of environmental damage. One way of including the external cost of the pollution caused in the production of an item in its cost to the company is to impose an environmental tax. An example is the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977. The Act imposes a graded tax on the consumption of water.. A company can make a large saving by recycling and economizing the use of water. The other way is to reward good behavior. The award of stars to a hotel is now linked to its environmental performance. An innovative market based method for the abatement of emission of carbon was introduced by the Kyoto protocol. A company receives a carbon credit certificate indicating the reduction it has made in the emission in terms of CO2 while producing an item over that made in producing it by the usual means. These certificates are tradable and bought by companies which are required to reduce their emission.

Information Based Instruments

A very effective means of ensuring the protection of environment is to spread public awareness. Environment has become an important public policy issue in many democracies and green parties have even joined the Government. Public awareness has forced many companies to take environment-friendly measures and declare them in their Annual Report. In a country like India the enforcement of law will improve if there is public support for it.


We have heard of the Titanic, the luxury ship which went down with a loss of 1500 lives on its first trans-Atlantic voyage. The ship was grazed by an iceberg causing barely perceptible tremor, but the ship's engineers realized that she would go down in one and a half hours. The passengers had little experience of the hazards of sea faring. They failed to comprehend the altered reality and carried on as though nothing had happened till they were faced with the inevitable.

An author has compared the tale of the Titanic to the situation of our earth. Despite all reasonable predictions by scientists, at least one world leader had persisted for a long time in denying climate change. I regret to say that we in the developing world are also busy in ascribing the present predicament to the behavior of the developed nation which is undeniably true, but have shown little interest in doing what we can to lessen the common hazard to mankind. We cannot obviously deny ourselves the right to development and social justice to our millions of under-privileged, poverty stricken countrymen but the path to this goal must be globally sustainable. This will involve detailed calculations of costs and benefits of each action at the individual, community, local, regional and global levels and charting a path which is the least harmful for the future of our progenies and the planet. We must all consider ourselves partners in this enormous mission.


More by :  Hirak Ghosh

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