Destroying a forest can actually increase GDP: why it’s time to rethink measures of poverty and well-being

A deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle, seen during an overflight by Greenpeace activists. Image: Getty.

Without nature, humans could be neither healthy nor happy. And yet the natural world can be completely ransacked without causing even a tiny blip on our usual measures of economic progress or poverty.

A major UN environmental meeting recently looked at launching an assessment of the different values that people attribute to nature, and what nature contributes to human societies. However, these high level discussions will be futile unless our measures of societal progress expand to explicitly include what nature does for human well-being and prosperity, especially for poor people.

Nature matters to people’s well-being in many different ways. It obviously provides us with basic needs such as food, clean air and water, as well as protection from environmental hazards. There is also a clear relationship with both physical and mental well-being, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have access to green spaces.

Beyond these instrumental roles, there is also evidence from around the world that nature is a more fundamental contributor to people’s sense of self. It is an integral part of what constitutes well-being, captured for some in the awe-inspiring moments when standing on top of a mountain, the breath-taking view of a beautiful river, or in the feeling of freedom associated with traversing a wide open landscape.

The problem with economic indicators

Despite the value we get from nature, our measures of progress and well-being remain much narrower, focused on what is visible and measurable. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the most prominent approach since the end of World War II, with GDP seen as a useful snapshot of the state of the economy and people’s well-being. What these figures often hide are those things, like the role of nature, that are not measured in the monetary economy, but are an important part of daily life and can be crucial for sustaining future prosperity.

There are alternatives. One that has gained some momentum is the Inclusive Wealth Index, which takes into account broader measures of human and natural well-being – its most recent assessment suggested that conventional GDP figures had greatly exaggerated growth over the period 1992-2010. In international development, the UN’s Human Development Index and the “multidimensional poverty index” both recognise a larger set of issues, combining material standards with measures of health and education. But they still do not adequately incorporate the role of nature.

Ignoring nature creates some perverse paradoxes. Measured GDP might actually increase as a consequence of a major environmental disaster, because of the economic activity created by the clean up and repair. Meanwhile, the environmental losses themselves don’t show up in economic measures. A country could get rich by cutting down all its primary forests (and many have), but the associated loss of habitat and wild species would not feature in national accounts.


Governments continue to make decisions based on a key set of headline figures. These include GDP and per capita income, which reflect economic prosperity, and, in poorer countries, the extent and incidence of poverty. But we can do better: our ongoing research focuses on developing environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty, based on the insight that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

Our research suggests that failing to consider these missing environmental aspects can result in an incomplete assessment of the multiple dimensions and underlying drivers of poverty. Consequently, the identification of the poor, as well as an understanding of what makes them poor, risks being partial, thereby posing a challenge to addressing poverty adequately.

The current status quo fails people, especially the poor, and also threatens future prosperity by undervaluing nature. Those who benefit from the current approaches are typically global elites who profit from environmental destruction (which goes unrecognised).

The losers are those most dependent on nature for their livelihoods and those especially vulnerable to environmental change. Even if nature is valued, it is typically converted into money equivalents, which favours those who are able and willing to parcel out nature into small commoditised bundles, which can then be sold to the highest bidder. This fails to take into account the views of those who believe that nature matters in other ways or in its own right, who care about the beauty of nature and the sheer joy that it provides to many.

The ConversationThe consequences of neglecting people’s varied views and aspirations have become apparent from recent political events in Europe and the US. Nature matters to our well-being, and people see their relationship with nature in many different ways. Recognising this is a crucial step towards building a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable society.

Judith Schleicher is a postdoctoral researcher in conservation, poverty & wellbeing, and Bhaskar Vira is a reader in political economy at the University of Cambridge

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The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.