May 06, 2022 10:49 AM

The lying politicians and the remedies to the hot issue of saving the planet


Satya Tripathi has many identities, a development economist, lawyer, chancellor of a university in his home country of India dedicated exclusively to indigenous people and cultures, and he just finished his tenure as the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General, head of New York Office, U.N. Environment and took up the role of the secretary general of a public foundation based in New York.

Tripathi served the U.N. for more than two decades in key areas such as post-war investigation in Bosnia, disaster relief and recovery in post-tsunami Aceh and Nias, peace negotiations during Cyprus unification talks, and the executive head of UNORCID, a U.N. system office to facilitate the implementation of a $1 billion partnership between Indonesia, Norway and other stakeholders to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and foster conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

When people talk about mankind’s impact on nature, the tone is seldom positive, to the effect that, if we think deeply and are completely honest, it is we human beings — not nature — that needs saving.

Tripathi is one of the rare people on this planet that has reversed the transformative and often destructive human influence on nature. Since he left his post in Indonesia in 2016, the Bukit Tigapuluh forest, replete with important biodiversity and endangered species such as Sumatran elephants and tigers, has been preserved due to the establishment of the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility (TLFF), a public-private partnership. And one year later, in his home country of India, he has been instrumental in establishing the Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF), continuing to leverage “private finance for public good” at mega-scale to achieve transformative social and environmental impact for millions of people in these two countries.

At the invitation of the organizers of SIIS2022, which gathers U.N. officials, policymakers, investors, environmental NGOs and the youth to talk about social impact investment and sustainability, the writer had the opportunity to meet Tripathi virtually. We had a candid discussion about his successful protection of forests without using a single penny from the Indonesian or Indian governments, his optimism even though he’s witnessed too much talking and lies during his U.N. days, why he chose climate adaptation over mitigation, and what he thinks is the best form intervention for the money.


Q: What attracts you in your new post? Or what can’t you (more agilely) do at UNEP that you can expect to achieve in your new post?

Tripathi: The U.N. is a great place for a supply side conversation as heads of governments, banks, and corporations are gathered, but U.N. is not a great place for a demand side conversation where you have to be in the grassroots and working with farmers, stakeholders or civil society organizations. That’s what U.N. lacks in an actionable level, when it comes to getting things done, you really need to be at the grassroots.

What we have seen over the last 30 years is a self-defeating arrangement where we have lots of conversation around who pays who, who is responsible for the situation. This conversation is important.

But when your house is on fire, you don’t spend time on arguing who puts the fire on, you go out and find out where to get water or the fire brigade. That’s the situation the planet is in.

My tenure is coming to an end. I didn’t take an extension, and one year later, I am delighted I did that because in the new organization, we have catalyzed some of the most significant ideas and we are on our way to achieving some of our goals set for the first two years.

Although the focus on climate action is a lot in the western world, for the planet actually, what matters is countries like China, India, Brazil and the developing countries that account for half of the world population — they will ultimately decide if the efforts work or not.

It is true that the crisis is a manmade crisis. I said man-made with purpose because women didn’t create this crisis, women have little influence in the policymaking process globally. Yet it has to be solved by all as women have always contributed to the solution.

That’s why we decide to support small holder farmers and natural farming in India. One of the programs we support in Andhra Pradesh (Note: a state in the south-eastern coastal region of India) , a million farmers from heavily chemical farming switched to natural farming, i.e. one out of six farmers converted.)

Natural farming is not organic farming, because bio-fertilizers are expensive, you use instead the strength of soil, the microbes to grow your food. You don’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to destroy the fertility of the soil, so that it is regenerative farming.

Now we are taking this program to showcase in Singapore. There’s a lot of ideas happening, and we need to work with each other to generate the kind of climate actions we need.

We are fretted with new threats every day, hurricane, floods, forest fire and now the war in Ukraine, they are all important and deserve all of our attention, but they are like flashes in a pan compared with climate change is doing to us and will do to us in 10 and 20 years. We really need to wake up and confront to the biggest challenges confronted humanity.

In the Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet, we find an idea — sometimes the champion of the idea needs support — we build a coalition around an action or an idea that has scale up potential, and we find them the money, because without money, talk will just be talk.

Q: What’s the attraction for private investment for public good, as you witnessed in Indonesia (Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility in 2016) & and in India (Sustainable India Finance Facility in 2017)? And what is the government/regulators’ role in climate finance?

Tripathi: TLFF in Indonesia is the first-ever $400-million-scale project in protecting a forest. It is a partnership with France’s Michelin, the tire company. The forest is about six times the size of Singapore, and 20% of which is already destroyed by illegal logging and poaching.

The project created a People-Nature compact. Michelin directly employs 16,000 people on 38,000 hectares, the world’s largest sustainable rubber plantation, and 34,000 more are indirectly employed through the secondary and tertiary sector of the economy.

The next ring of forest is managed by the WWF as a conservation project area. The Indonesian government is an enabler of the land to become a conservation concession, part of which is for production and the other for protection, which complements the full ring of the forest, now protected.

There is not a single penny from the Indonesian government. All is funded by private finance. And the private finance is very concessional when the purpose is to protect the forests and the life and livelihood of the local community, much lower than the market interest rate of 12-13% for a rubber plantation. The project has worked for 6 years and investors from around the world welcome this corporate bond issued from Singapore.

In India, SIFF has supported the Andhra Pradesh project. The champion is actually the Indian government, working with the farmers. Our contribution is to grow a partnership of about 50 organizations, bringing in science, research, market expertise into the equation. Last year, after seeing our solution of cultivating the land, making it healthier while still producing the food, the German Development Bank came forward and provided a loan of $300 million at 0.5% interest, which is way lower than the World Bank.

As the Indian government spent about $550 million annually on fertilizer subsidies, the loan is paid off easily as natural farming does not use fertilizers. It also uses much less water, which cuts the electricity bills on pumping the water, and saving the state subsidies on electricity.

So it is a win-win-win for the government, the investor, the farmers and the mother nature.

In Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet, we capitalized on the idea of carbon-negative farming, a combination of existing technologies such as vertical and horizontal and greenhouse agriculture.

It is a simple idea, take a piece of land, you keep 80% forest that does the nutrient recycling and recharging, and the remaining 20%, you create net-zero agriculture, close loop, everything is processed on site. In short, 20% for agriculture and even the agriculture is net-zero, 80% for mother nature, absorbing and sequestrating carbon. That’s why it is carbon-negative.

We first launched our vertical farming agri-haven in Jamaica, which is a $300 million project. While one acre of fertile land of natural resources and fertilizers would produce 10 tons tomato, our produce is 250 tons on one acre of land.

Next we have signed agreement with Bahamas, Venezuela and other parts of India, the idea of carbon-negative farming is taking off.

(Q: That would be great news for farmers and governments, such as for China.)

Tripathi: China, if we look at the ecosystem regeneration in Inner Mongolia, it is extraordinary. What’s more, China does things in great scale and complexity, so I have often said, China holds the key for really solving the climate crisis.

More recently, China’s announcement of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 is extraordinary. The U.S. has promised carbon neutrality by 2050, but its carbon emission peaked by 1972, which means it will take the U.S. close to 80 years to do that. China hasn’t peaked yet, but still promised to be carbon neutralized by 2060. That’s extraordinary.

And in total emission, the U.S.’ emission globally is five gigatons, and China’s emission is about 20 gigatons, it is now 2.5 times that of the US already, and it hasn’t peaked, so the complexity is enormous.

My estimate is China will peak at 2040, which means China will take 20 years to be carbon neutral, while the U.S. takes nearly 80 years.


Q: When we talk about fighting climate change, your perspective seems to put very much focus on agriculture, instead of coal, renewable energy, deforestation, transport and so on. Could you elaborate on each of the sectors I mentioned and their potential and effectiveness in fighting climate change?

Tripathi: They are equally important, energy transition is happening, which is transport, energy production and consumption and all of that. It is bigger than agriculture.

If we take food system, include the production, fertilizer, warehousing, transportation, processing, it is 40% of global emission, which needs to change.

But what excites me about soil and earth is the potential for sequestration, we not only need to prevent emission, we also need to sequestrate carbon.

We are currently at 420 parts per million of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, this is the metric that should worry us very much in the long term, because last time we were at 420 parts per million was 5 million years ago. And that creates the dominos, the ices melt, the arctic ice breaking away and so on.

Soil can store three times as much carbon as in the atmosphere. While the energy transition makes our economy more resource-efficient, it doesn’t sequestrate carbon.

Agriculture will not only mitigate, but also helps adaptation. Chemical fertilizers have damaged the soil organic carbon, ideally be about 2.5%. In a lot of places, (it) has fallen to below 0.5%. Some scientists tell us, we are only 50 harvests away from not being able to grow anything.

There’s an urgency to really bring back our soil. What natural farming does is to switch from soil chemistry to soil biology. What we saw in Andhra Pradesh is birds and bees are coming back, after we stopped using chemical fertilizers that kills the bees and its colonies. That’s bringing back nature.

For people complaining without fertilizers, how can you grow food, my counter questions is, have you walked into a forest and asked the question, who puts the fertilizer here? Nobody. Forest is a cyclical, natural process, it grows and thrives without human intervention.

So we need to do something similar to agriculture.

Q: In terms of cost-effectiveness, of all the projects you’ve attested, on the investment on three areas of climate change i.e. impact on public education, adaptation or mitigation, which would generate most benefits? Perhaps it is country-specific?

Tripathi: You are right. It is highly country specific. In highly industrialized countries like G7, the mitigation efficiency is far more important than the adaptation efficiency, because their emission is far greater in mitigation.

Massive countries like China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, although they are industrialized at different levels. China is equally big on agriculture and adaptation.

Adaptation resonates with political leaders of these big countries, such as clean food, improving public health, prosperity for the people, for example, in natural farming, the cost of cultivation dropped by 60%, cutting the use of chemical fertilizer which is the biggest cost in conventional agriculture, using less water, and the agriculture produce is more resilient.

Last 20 years the climate discussion is focused on mitigation, but mitigation provides little basis for action. For example, scientists estimate 2.1 tons per capita carbon foot print is ideal, the world would be sustainable. Some countries are much higher like the U.S. In India it is 1.9 tons, how can you convince the Indian prime minister while the other countries are much higher in per capita carbon footprint?

Impact is also important, we can see the ground is shifting, especially in the European parliament, where there are maximum number of environmentally inclined members in the house.

Q: Between India and China, there are many similarities such as food security, population affected by sea level change, among others. So what would be your suggestions to China? Focusing on adaptation or mitigation? Focusing on agriculture like India?

Tripathi: The biggest power China had in this climate conversation is that of finance — China has shown the world either through partnership like the BRIC banks, or AIIB, or contributed and created major financial institutions that help support major climate actions around the world. China has the financial might, to actually shift the landscape and take the leadership role in that process.

What we are lacking globally is honest political leadership in terms of getting things done.

We are in a real crisis of epic proportions, so let’s focus on real action and the reliability of the countries who actually deliver their promises that is so consequential to the survival of human species.

Q: Is it the reason you can to the SIIS conference today?

Tripathi: Conferences like this brought back the spotlight on what needs to happen, and to focus on what is important and not be lost by mundane things or minor things that look big. I was speaking to a young girl student at Delhi Entrepreneurship University, as much as you might think the marriage of two Bollywood celebrities are so important and you should all discuss about it, but your life doesn’t depend on it. Your life depends on how the climate becomes in the next five to 10 years.

Q: You are very vocal among U.N. officials, once publicly during the Greentech conference London in November 2021, you said there were very powerful people lying in Glasgow during COP26, and you are untiringly urging people to take action since 1992 the Rio summit, have you seen moments of hope in the last 30 years after Rio and how those moments are missed?

Tripathi: Everybody is lying (in Cop26). What I meant at the Greentech Conference, I don’t see hope in our leaders, because everybody goes (there) and promise something that they have no intention of doing. If that’s not lying, what’s lying?

But I see moments of hope every day when young starters reach out to me through twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. Some of those ideas are extraordinary.

Ultimately, problems created by 8 billion people are not going to be solved by a few governments and corporations, so we have to solve the problems ourselves.

(Q: are there any missed opportunities in the last 30 years?)

Tripathi: We had the climate conversation for 30 years, but we’ve missed the points. The real conversation should be how we solve the climate change problem, not about who should be whom, whom we blame.

We have great example of collective action, if we look at the ozone hole now is plugged, thanks to the Montreal Protocol, which is one of the most successful climate conventions.

(Q: why has this worked and not the others?)

Tripathi: Because we don't get the scientists and engineers into the room, we’ve got the politicians.

(Q: so you think scientists and engineers are the hope, not the politicians.)

Tripathi: Absolutely.

 [BIO] Mr. Satya S Tripathi

Mr. Satya S. Tripathi is former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Head of New York Office at UN Environment. A development economist and lawyer with over 35 years of varied experience, Mr. Tripathi has served with the UN since 1998 in key positions in Europe, Asia and Africa in the areas of Climate Change, Human Rights, Democratic Governance and Legal Affairs. He was Chair of the Committees on Laws, Treaties and Administrative matters for the UN- mediated Cyprus unification talks in 2004; UN Recovery Coordinator for Aceh and Nias where he facilitated international cooperation and funding of over US$ 7 billion for post-tsunami and post- conflict recovery efforts in support of the Indonesian government and affected populations; and Executive Head of UNORCID, a UN System Office of 10 UN Agencies established by the UN Secretary General in 2011 to facilitate the implementation of a US$ 1 Billion REDD+ partnership between Indonesia, Norway and other stakeholders on climate change mitigation and adaptation through the conservation of forests and preservation of peat-land and bio- diversity. 

Mr. Tripathi was instrumental in establishing the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility (TLFF) in Indonesia in 2016 and the Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF) in 2017 to leverage ‘private finance for public good’ at mega-scale to achieve transformative social and environmental impact in developing countries. He previously served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on Forests; and in India as a member of its national civil service. 

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