Unsustainable conversion of forests to private wealth must cease, economist says


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Shifting to a green economy will require ceasing the unsustainable conversion of public wealth to private wealth while accounting for for the full social costs of private-sector activities, according to a leading economist.

The idea is hardly a new one, but it has gained currency as demographic changes and unsustainable development have hastened degradation of the environment — particularly in Southeast Asia, where rapid growth has come at the expense of the region’s forests.

The benefits that forests provide, including water storage and management, carbon sequestration, crop pollination, biodiversity protection, among others, “are public goods and services — they don’t belong to anybody; they belong to everybody,” said Pavan Suhkdev, UN Environment Programme goodwill ambassador.

Speaking in an interview during the recent Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, Sukhdev said that the destruction of forested areas through business activities represents “the conversion of public wealth into private wealth. Is that a conversion you want?”

Sukhdev was among 120 speakers at the Summit, which sought to focus dialogue, investments and research that would pave the way to a green economy in Southeast Asia. A green economy, in Sukhdev’s words, would improve social equity by narrowing the gap between rich and poor; keep climate-changing emissions in check; and ensure the safety of vital necessities like soil fertility and freshwater availability.

Transformation of the private sector is key to achieving this, said Sukhdev, who is chief executive of GIST Advisory and leader of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a global initiative that aims to highlight the economic benefits of biodiversity and the costs of losing biodiversity and degrading ecosystems.

“Today’s model of policies, prices and institutions is converting a large amount of public wealth … into a small amount of private wealth,” he said. “That does not make economic sense, and it should stop.”

“So the challenge is now, How do we align policies, prices, institutions … in order to make this fundamental tradeoff between public and private wealth actually work to the better of humanity?”

Watch the full interview with Pavan Sukhdev above.