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Mohan Munasinghe - We have to increase the level of sustainable production

26/6/2020

Mohan Munasinghe is one of the world's leading experts on climate change. In the second part of an exclusive interview, the academic and Nobel Peace Prize winner warns of the impact of climate change, and the need to focus on solutions – exploring the path of sustainable innovation.

Do you think people are aware of climate change? What is the most up-to-date information on its impact, especially in the Mediterranean Basin region?

There is inadequate public understanding of the socio-economic impacts of climate change. It’s usually scare stories. That there is a forest fire or there is a hurricane and this and that. But the true socio-economic impacts are much deeper, which will also affect the Mediterranean, in terms of what it will do to people’s livelihoods, land use and rainfall, and the long-term impacts. So people’s understanding can come if the ideas are simplified and properly explained, instead of just scare stories, intended to frighten people. The second important thing for deepening knowledge, is what the public should do. Scaring people is just the first step, to get their attention. But, then they say what can we do? For example, you can say: “Well, we can eat less meat.” But are there enough alternative proteins? That is where businesses come in, very importantly. Because you are talking not only about sustainable consumption by the public, but also sustainable production from the business community, and those two can work together. So that is the answer to your first question.

So it's still possible that innovation and new ideas, or older recovered ideas, can now be brought back through the normal trade channels and people will adopt them as they have adopted others?

Yes, I think that’s exactly right. They need not be modern, off the shelf solutions. We should look at older strategies. In fact, traditional knowledge. I mean how did, for example, people 100 or 1000 years ago cope with prolonged droughts? And there may be something in the old farming practices which if it has survived, can probably be helpful -- but we have forgotten that because we are now relying on modern irrigation systems and high impact fertilizers, this that and the other. So, what you are saying is right. There is some innovation which comes with new ideas and new methods, but also some of the older survival techniques are important.

Very good. Have you read about the ice stupas in India?

No not really. But if it’s important. Tell me.

It's just a wonderful story. People are essentially building ice stupas in the Ladakh region of northeast India. For this purpose, they make these massive amounts of ice. They just build large stupas, and they stay there throughout the summer. So people have water long after the ice has thawed. They still have the water throughout the whole summer, just by using what they have in the winter months. They create something, it’s a very simple structure. It’s just compacting the ice into a stupa shaped form and the village has water for the whole of the Summer.

That is an amazing story; I hadn’t seen this but that’s a super example. So simple techniques can also work, and because the stupa has spiritual value (as a temple), it motivates people to build one. Now your previous question about the Mediterranean, I think that is fairly clear and I’ll focus a little more on the impact of climate change on wine growing. So, the change in the air temperature and so on, suggests that with global warming, the wines or the grapes that are suitable for certain regions will shift. That's going to be a real challenge and generally the same grapes now will survive better, or worse. This is not just true of the Mediterranean but all over the world. Also, since the temperature increase is very gradual, that shift will affect wine growers over the long term. There are changes in rainfall, generally less rainfall, particularly in the summer. That will, of course, depend on the particular region, but it will also be something that wine growers have to be particularly careful of.

And what other aspects will we have to face?

There are other aspects of course. There will be fairly big shifts in the fish catch, especially if there are existing problems like over fishing, ocean pollution and so on. Climate change will generally make existing problems worse. Public health is also the same, where heat waves, floods and droughts will affect urban and rural area. One has to be particularly concerned about the agricultural-based population when farming becomes more difficult. Extreme forest fires, which are more likely, can be life threatening plus also cause huge damage. So, we have to cope with all of these things, and don’t forget that both the population and number of tourists are growing, plus urbanisation. All of these factors are going to come together and it’s not easy to manage. I think for the urban population, which is more industrial, jobs will be affected by technology trends.

Are you referring to robotisation, and the impact on employment?

Yes. I think if you are an urban industrial worker, your concern is not so much with climate change, but whether your job is going to be replaced by a robot or artificial intelligence. So, it is disruptive technologies that will be of greater concern for the urban factory and office worker. For agricultural-based people, like in the cork growing and wine-growing regions, climate change becomes much more important, because of rainfall changes, temperature changes, and effects on crops.

But the concern is about not having people to work in agricultural areas, and that this is connected with the substitution of people by machines?

Not necessarily. I’m saying that in the short to medium term, if you are worried about the employment issues of climate change, focus more on the agricultural regions. If you are worried about disruptive technologies, then you focus much more on digital technology and what it will do to industrial jobs and even white-collar workers.

In the framework of BIGG (Balanced Inclusive Green Growth), what can be done to find this type of solution that benefits people, the planet and prosperity? What is the role of companies like Corticeira Amorim in this process?

For rich industrial countries, the path is essentially maintaining, or even slightly improving, your standard of living, while reducing the use of environmental resources. So, it is essentially about reducing energy use, water use, land use, etc. while producing as much goods, or more goods than before. That has all to do with technologies and processes. And businesses are very key players. For the emerging and middle-income countries there is a different curve. Middle income countries are asked not to follow the example of the rich countries, because they have reached a position where they have to reduce their resource consumption. Instead they should use the lessons learned from rich countries, use the new technologies and innovation, to find the balanced inclusive green growth path (BIGG) that will allow you to arrive at the same end point as the rich countries -- but with much less resource use. For middle-income and low-income countries it would be a leapfrogging type of approach, leveraging innovation and not repeating the mistakes of the rich nations.

So that would be a leapfrogging process that would have to leverage technology to avoid the costly mistakes of our past.

Exactly, you got it in a nutshell. You have two different paths. There isn’t the same approach suitable for everyone. In other words, the rich countries know already what needs to be done to reduce energy consumption, and Europe is trying to do this, although the US is not trying hard enough. The reason they won’t do it is that the price signals are not right, or there is not enough coordination between the private sector and government. We’ll get into that in a minute. For the rich countries, these changes are more difficult, because you get used to a certain lifestyles and it’s much more difficult to change. For the emerging and the poor countries, they should not get used to that lifestyle. They can already, as you said, innovate, leapfrog and go to the new technologies to avoid that. So that is part of the BIGG path that I talked about.

Just to give you a very simple example. Sustainable lifestyles have to do, for example, with consumption. If you look at food, one third of the world’s food production currently is wasted. In the U.S. about almost 50% of the food that reaches a home is wasted, because they throw away stuff. In Europe it's more like 30% because they are more frugal, and in many developing countries it is between 0% and 10% because people are so poor, they don’t throw away anything. But we have 800 million people who are hungry. We are not saying that you can ship all the food waste from the US to Sub-Saharan Africa. But there is a balance of production and consumption of food, which can be better organized if we follow sustainable consumption and lifestyle patterns. This will stabilize global food production and make it easier to feed the starving. Now on the production side, there is another side of the story, and that is your next question about the role of companies. I think you have to increase the level of sustainable production. So ultimately if you have enough sustainable consumers and enough sustainable producers helping each other and buying products that are sustainable, you will have a sustainable society. But if the consumers are wasteful and the producers are not responsible enough to promote sustainability in their advertising, you will not get a good outcome.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is mother nature’s way of forcibly reminding us that sustainability is more important than ever, and I salute Amorim on its 150th Anniversary for helping to lead the way towards balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG) and a safer world for everyone.

The first half of this exclusive enterview is available here