By Dipayan Dey      

Sustainability in the anthropocene has at least 17 facets. Orchestrating synergies and trade-offs between the 17 SDGs have been the subject of much study and effort, but meagre evidence exists of it happening in practice.

Trade-offs can arise if climate policies encourage ecosystem-based adaptation practices that have low biodiversity value.

Nature-based solutions for facing climate change in coastal India and Bangladesh reveal that implementing the SDGs has to be adaptive, collective, and proactive. For example, float-farming (locally called haor) in flooded areas of Bangladesh is a heritage practice now taking on a new avatar, wherein buoyant bamboo rafts are used to float organic grow-bags for regenerative agriculture on inundated floodplains.

South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE), a regional CSO working on SDGs in the South Asian ecoregion, has transformed this old emissions-intensive practice to support carbon-neutral, climate-resilient regenerative farming, helping farmers face saltwater ingress due to sea level rise and flood inundations in the region affected by the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). While float-farming reduces emissions by using solar micro-irrigation and no-till organic farming, it also leverages circular economic benefits for its beneficiaries with a cyclic design. The UN Office for South-South Cooperation has documented it as a best practice in  South Asia.

For all of this evident success, the potential of such nature-based solution (NbS) or ecosystem-based adaptations (EbA) to provide the intended climate benefits has not been rigorously assessed. The integration of technology, innovative design, and community governance, as seen in the approach to float-farming improvised by SAFE, could be used as a paradigm for sustainable practices at the interface of communities and ecosystems. But evaluations are needed regarding such tools’ reliability and cost-effectiveness compared to engineered alternatives.

It is imperative to recognize that trade-offs can arise if climate policies encourage EbA with low biodiversity value. Policies must protect species richness and multi-functional landscapes, which are key determinants of sustainability. There has been a policy bulldozing in the process of decarbonizing our social and economic systems. For example, supplying solar-irrigation modules without building capacity for water-use budgeting, planting invasive species for quick afforestation, or encouraging palm-oil production by clearing residual rainforests in northeastern India out of political vendetta provide case studies. In a dearth of appropriate policy instruments, successful EbA and NbS can be hijacked by influential agents and transformed to yield private capital, ignoring the mandates of inclusivity and community governance.

Another successful intervention of SAFE on integrated municipal waste management is the Waste-to-Energy project, which uses segregated municipal waste to generate electricity, providing access to low-cost clean energy for the ultra-poor. However, this effective, promising strategy is stuck in the muck of the policy framework. The state government is unwilling to promote net-metering for purchasing renewable energy as this could erode the market for state-sponsored power production units. In the current political landscape, policies are in place to strangle CSOs in a ‘Netflix’ of fiducial rules and systemic check gates, under the guise of transparency. As a result, community and other non-profit organizations are at risk of giving way to start-ups and micro-small enterprises prospering with the pretext of sustainability.

Meanwhile, let’s take a critical look at the potential of NbS and EbA to deliver both climate change mitigation and adaptation. The sustainability cart stops here, as the first milestone of mobilizing investments is accomplished through some carbon financing mechanisms. Such efforts can become successful, break even, scale up and replicate, but without community involvement. In these cases, the community is not given any stake nor allowed to participate in the decision making. Instead they are engaged as laborers or workers and are exploited.

SAFE recently received an external assessor for a climate initiative. The assessor was focused strictly on the facility’s NPV, and seemed to consider its social and environmental impacts as minor accomplishments. It is crucial for sustainability and climate change actors at all levels to recognize that EbAs and NbS must be designed to avoid damaging biodiverse ecosystems and to provide social safeguards. In other words, the bio-rights of the commons must gain legal momentum, and take their rightful place as an essential part of sustainability in the global south.

This guest article is authored by Dipayan Dey, Chair (Research & Planning), South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE). Email:            

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