The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is being celebrated today amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This year's theme is "climate action." The unforeseeable global breakout of the novel coronavirus pandemic has likely made this year's theme more introspective.
Although no definite source of the pandemic has been confirmed, and many hypotheses are being discussed, an environmental angle behind this outbreak, or its intensity, cannot be rejected outright, at this stage. Linking the outbreak of Covid-19to illegal poaching activities or a high death rate to air pollution are some widely-discussed hypotheses about its origin and effects. Whatever the reason behind this, the time has come to think more seriously about our economic activities and the environment.
We need to understand that a healthy environment is a prerequisite for a healthy life on Earth. Our very survival depends on the environment. Our economic activities are also dependent on the environment – directly or indirectly. Degrading or destroying the environment poses a threat to human economic welfare and humanity's very survival.
Of the three types of available capital – i.e. built capital, human capital and natural capital – that are essential for economic activities, the latter assumes high importance. This is not just for its role as the supplier of inputs to production or providing final goods and services for human consumption, but also its role as the ultimate assimilator of our residuals. Both of these services are vital for human survival and nourishment on this earth. With the degradation of the environment, the smooth supply of both of these essential services will see some serious disruptions.
In Bangladesh, the state of environmental degradation is no different; in fact, in certain cases, it is even worse. The whole picture can be understood easily if we look at some recent statistics. As per the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2018, prepared by Yale University and Columbia University, Bangladesh ranked 178 among 180 countries – only better than Burundi. The IQAir ranked Bangladesh the most-polluted country in terms of air pollution – measured in PM2.5 – in the world in 2019. Similarly, the World Bank, in2018, found that about 28 percent of all deaths in Bangladesh can be attributed to environmental risks. This is higher than the global as well as the South Asian average, which are 16 and 26 percent respectively.
In the case of climate change, the country is one of the most at-risk. According to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Bangladesh is expected to experience an increase in average day temperatures of one degree Celsius by 2030 and of 1.4 degrees Celsius by 2050, according to the IPCC in 2007. This indicates that the effects of anthropogenic climate change in Bangladesh are very clear. According to the 2020 Global Climate Risk Index, Bangladesh ranked the seventh-most vulnerable country based on impacts of the 1999 to 2018 time period. The country has already been experiencing adverse climatic impacts in the form of extreme events – like cyclones, floods, drought incidences, etc. – for the last decade or so.
Given these realities, Bangladesh is undoubtedly facing a number of environmental challenges. These challenges, natural or anthropogenic, are surely affecting our lives and livelihoods. The experts opine that the situation, with time, may only worsen if effective steps are not taken. As mentioned, a healthy life demands a healthy state of the environment. Likewise, our stock of natural capital – like wetlands, cultivable land, forests and wildlife, ground and surface water, air and water quality, etc. – are only depleted or degraded over time. With such losses, our economy will also be affected and, most importantly, weaker and resource-poor households will have to bear the brunt of this as their lives and livelihoods are more closely linked to the natural environment.
This implies that our hard-earned economic achievements may be affected by environmental risks. Say, for example, the ongoing pandemic – that, although not confirmed, experts say originated from animal poaching for human consumption – is causing huge economic consequences for the global economy. The evidence is all around. The International Monetary Fund's recently-published World Economic Outlook 2020 warned that the world economy may incur a loss of US$9 trillion due to Covid-19 in 2020-21.
Our ever-increasing thirst to exploit natural capital is breaking down the man-environment relationship and is also responsible for many conflicting situations. The exploitation has resulted in large-scale destruction and degradation of our: river, beel or jheel(floodplains), canal, and forest ecosystems – plus caused: air, water, noise, and other types of pollution. These have direct economic consequences in addition to their environmental and ecological impacts.
The post- novel coronavirus period may see a number of significant changes to our economic actions – particularly in terms of fiscal and monetary policies and adjustments in the implementation of many ongoing plans and strategies. Such changes are also warranted. However, the time has come to ask this very simple question – what is the main purpose of all the economic plans, policies and strategies adopted by a country? What outcomes do we desire from such policies and plans? The answer is nothing new or unexpected. To accelerate our economic growth and achieve greater development. What benefits will we get from this high economic growth and development? This will create more economic and other generic welfare. And what does welfare indicate? This indicates more economic and non-economic – e.g. social, cultural, psychological, environmental, health, etc. – benefits.
Now, looking at the volume of economic and other types of impacts caused by this pandemic – and if such incidences, as predicted by scientists, increase with climatic and other environmental changes – the sustenance of our very economic development will be under serious threat. Additionally, if our hard-earned economic growth and development cannot withstand such a pandemic and pushes millions of people below the poverty line again, then we need to sit back and think seriously about the whole economic exercise.
Our development goals and strategies then need to address the net welfare of our people – such net welfare gain demands sustained economic development. Achieving sustainable economic development without a sound state of the environment is almost impossible for any country. Economic growth and development at the cost of the environment is nothing but an illusion. Thus, the question of managing environmental capital needs to be prioritised in our economic plans, policies and strategies.
The author is associate professor & coordinator of Environmental and Resource Economics Programme, Dhaka School of Economics