Increasing the wellbeing of all requires a more robust economy, equality, jobs, quality education and health services, transport and infrastructure. Yet providing for all that unavoidably requires more natural resources such as energy, water, agriculture, forest products, and minerals, as well as waste management capacity – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
- Global consumption of natural resource has exceeded what nature can sustainably replenish, according to a new global study; what does it mean for Sri Lanka?
In Sri Lanka, currently, we have a precious window of opportunity to choose an economic path that is either sustainable or one that deviates us from true success.
Sustainable development in simple terms means socio-economic development for all within the possibilities of our natural resources. Economic development that is blind to “nature’s budget” depletes not only our ecological resources, but puts social and economic progress at risk.
Buried in economic debt, the current focus in Sri Lanka is stimulating high economic growth, often at huge costs to our valuable eco-systems. But is this the most effective strategy?
We just published the results of our research about this very question in Nature Sustainability. The conclusion is, as outlined in the paper ‘The Importance of Resource Security for Poverty Eradication,’ that economic expansion that builds on depleting our resource foundation weakens our prospects, rather than strengthening them.
In this research, we analysed the development prospects of every country. Given the current context of global ecological overshoot, the research highlights that 72% of humanity lives in countries facing two simultaneous constraints:
1. They run a biocapacity deficit. This means their consumption exceeds what their own ecosystems can renew. In their terms, the country’s ecological footprint outstrips the country’s biocapacity.
2. They also generate less than world average income per person. This means that if they want to get the extra resources from abroad, they are at a financial disadvantage. Consequently, they are unlikely to supplement with imports what their domestic biological resources cannot supply, particularly given fierce resource competition as humanity’s demand already vastly exceeds what the planet can renew.
Living off overuse will not last. Still, during times of overshoot, many countries may continue to get sufficient resources, and contribute to even more overshoot. But such overuse will not last, and those countries with the double challenge described above are most brutally exposed to this reality.
The ecological debt humanity has raked up includes the carbon debt in the atmosphere which is already exceeding what a 2°C warming ceiling would allow (unless there will be massive future net sequestration, as IPCC scenarios imply, which The Economist called an “imaginary backstop”). This means that current overuse is already inflicting large-scale irreversible damage. This makes the resource risk ever more relevant.
Strengthening biocapacity is critical to Sri Lanka’s sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation
Sri Lanka is one of those countries with this double challenge. This makes it particularly exposed. With only quarter of the biocapacity of the world average, its demand is over three times larger than its own biocapacity. Yet its average income is significantly below world average.
This simply means that economic growth that enhances the ability of ecosystems to regenerate produces true wealth while economic growth that liquidates natural capital ultimately undermines the future success of the country, and more immediately countries with this double challenge, such as Sri Lanka.
This might well erode the impressive social achievements Sri Lanka can be proud of: Sri Lanka has achieved a high Human Development Index (HDI) ranking, at 72 out of 189 countries (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/latest-human-development-index-ranking). This is a stunning achievement, particularly given its low GDP.
But we also know that its high proportion of ‘non-poor’ population remains vulnerable to falling back into poverty even with small shocks. Therefore, a more robust economy, equality, jobs, quality education and health services, transport and infrastructure are still very much in too short supply in the country.
Yet providing for all that unavoidably requires natural resource such as energy, water, agriculture, forest products and minerals. It also requires more waste management capacity. Gurther, bio-capacity enhancements play a key role in reducing Sri Lanka’s climate change vulnerability (Sri Lanka has already been recognised as vulnerable to climate change despite its relatively less carbon emissions at global scale).
Consequently, vanishing resource security undermines Sri Lanka’s future success in four main ways:
1) Insufficient biocapacity as input for economic growth. For example, this includes direct inputs such as forest products (e.g. timber), minerals (e.g. sand), water; and indirect inputs and services such as not enough forests to provide nutrient cycles like carbon and oxygen, degraded soil quality without ability to provide for agriculture, over consumed fish stock, unplanned urbanisation resulting unnecessary destruction of biocapacity for flood protection. A healthy supply of these resource inputs depends on health of ecological systems (e.g. biodiversity).
2) Further degradation of existing well-being, as key services like education or health services can no longer be adequately provided.
3) Increased pressure on financial budgets as expenditure for commodity import rises, particularly as the competition on foreign markets for resources gets harsher.
4) Exposure to external pressures like climate change, and pandemics like Covid-19 multiplying the tensions mentioned in the three points above.
This underlines how crucial it is for Sri Lanka to emphasise the careful management of its own biocapacity, and find ways to reduce its demand and pressure on these resources.
Let’s not blindly follow the Singapore or Dubai models
Such resource realism allows to build a prosperous future. In contrast, any attempt to blindly follow a resource fantasy, such as the Singapore model, which is detached from Sri Lanka’s resource and financial reality, can be damaging. It resembles suggesting all teenagers to become Bollywood stars so they can be financially successful.
Certainly, Bollywood stars do incredibly well financially. But the absurdity of such a proposition is obvious: This strategy is not replicable since it may require over a million viewers to ‘support’ one Bollywood star (225 stars for a population of 1.3 billion Indians is indicated on Wikipedia).
While turning an Indian teenager into a Bollywood star is not strictly impossible, it is statistically not likely and certainly not scalable. In the same vein, banking on Sri Lanka being able to imitate Singapore is incredibly risky because it is barely replicable. It becomes a dangerous gamble.
Oddly though, many current development strategies in the world resemble this Bollywood dream. Their proponents see finance success such as Dubai, Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Singapore. They see the financial successes of these centres and take them as evidence in support of their development plans.
However, they miss out on a fundamental question: is this resource detached development strategy replicable? Because cities like Dubai or Singapore depend on material resource flows that, if extended, would require the support of several Earths. In fact, Dubai’s demand extended to the world would require 5.5 Earths; Singapore’s 3.6.
In contrast, a solid strategy recognises that resource security is essential for long-term success. Building wellbeing while reducing Sri Lanka’s resource insecurity becomes a robust strategy that is not just hoping for miracles, but working with physical reality.
(Priyangi Jayasinghe is a Researcher at the Munasinghe Institute for Development, Colombo. Mathis Wackernagel is a Researcher at Global Footprint Network, Oakland, CA, USA.)