Changemakers for the future

Ani Dasgupta, World Resources Institute

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Ani Dasgupta, CEO and President of World Resources Institute (WRI).

Poverty and climate are two sides of the same problem

I grew up in Delhi in the 1970s and 80s. It’s a very peculiar place that’s seen a vast amount of growth. You see the city change every year, every two years, every five years. I saw great wealth and great poverty sitting next to each other.

Where we lived I had to cross the river Yamuna every day to get to school. It’s a tributary of the Ganges and equally culturally important. But it was not much more than a sewer. This beautiful, important river, that a whole civilisation was built on, was dead. There was nothing left but human, chemical and agricultural waste. And the wealthier the city became, the more polluted the river got.

But my awakening came from my undergraduate education when I trained as an architect. The slums surrounded all of us, including my own college. I felt very strongly that that was what I want to work on. I didn’t want to build big houses, but to figure out how cities can be without slums. I wanted to know: what’s going on to produce this immense wealth, while so many people are poor, without water, without sanitation, without anything? This is the conundrum that drove me to think about cities and public policy, about poverty and development. It’s what led me to the World Bank.

Development work
When I was older, I started working to improve the slums. My perspective on the climate movement comes from a developmental impact point of view. Because a bad environment impacts poor people much more. As I kept working at the World Bank, my journey to climate and my current position at WRI is still very much from a development perspective. Throughout my career, I’ve always strongly believed that poverty and climate are not two different problems. They are two sides of the same problem.

During my time at the World Bank, I went to Indonesia for a year to lead an infrastructure programme. One of the projects I worked on was creating community level organisations, together with the government, in slums (‘kampungs’), cities and urban villages. This was 25 years ago and 20 of these communities still exist. It’s made me realise that it’s possible to work successfully with communities and, through policy, to do it at scale. It’s given me a lot of hope. When you go to university you learn about the things that don’t work. That governments can’t do anything, and bureaucrats don’t understand how to work with communities. But this experience proved the opposite is true. The interactions between all the different stakeholders who were working together were at the core of the solution. It’s been my most rewarding professional experience.

Tsunami reconstruction
In January 2004, just after Christmas, the tsunami struck Indonesia. It was the most devastating thing that happened in the nation’s recent past. Hundreds of thousands of people died. The World Bank assigned me to lead the infrastructure reconstruction programme after the tsunami. I worked for the next two and a half years with the government to support their reconstruction efforts. To see the physical reconstruction happen around me, and to help bring solidarity among communities, was a rewarding experience. I think crises can bring out the best in governments, in people and in global organisations. It gave me hope that real change is possible.

Moving the needle
I am very, very much an optimist. I have felt many times that we at WRI are doing well. And we are very proud of that. But at the same time, you look at the world where it is. You see that a lot of good things are happening, but we’re not moving anywhere fast enough. That makes me think: what do I as a leader of WRI, and WRI as an organisation, need to do differently? I think a lot about new strategies and what an organisation like WRI is supposed to do. Ultimately, our success has to be measured with moving the needle. And although I think we are moving the needle, we’re not moving it fast enough.

I strongly believe in the next stage of change. We’ve had a decade of global discussions, which have been relatively successful in making climate and nature an important issue. They’ve made sure people understand that every company in the world has to get to net zero, that every country has to decarbonise. Sometimes we forget how far we’ve travelled.

If we look at where the world was 10 years ago, a lot of fundamental global narrative shifts have taken place. WRI has played an important role in the central narrative shift: that economic prosperity is possible with decarbonisation. Not only can these two things coexist. We cannot prosper in the future without decarbonisation.

What success looks like

Success in the next ten years is not going to be about global agreement. It’s going to be around every country finding their own path for transition. And every country’s transition will be different because their economies, cultures and starting points are different. We have to figure out how to shift to an economy that values the role of nature. That shift has started to happen over the last few years, but it’s not gone far enough.

I truly believe that for us to have this transition it has to be good for people. If we don’t create a society that is more equal through this process, there won’t be any political support for the change that’s needed. It won’t be morally right if we continue to be as unequal as we are. And it won’t be technically possible to decarbonise if a billion people who live in slums today continue to live in slums 10 years from now.

I think there needs to be a lot more solidarity between rich countries and poor countries, because we have to collectively pay for it. Poorer countries will not have the resources to pay for it, and I believe they shouldn’t have to do this on their own.

Hopes for the future

If I were to speak at COP28, I would say exactly what I’ve  just said: the COPs are about solidarity. They’re about countries coming together and committing to work together to solve the world’s problems on climate, nature and people. These are interconnected problems. At COP, rich countries and poor countries and island countries and large countries come together and say: “You know, we cannot solve this problem on our own. Rich countries can’t, poor countries can’t, no country can. This is us collectively working together.” And if they commit and recommit and recommit to solidarity, I think we will make progress.

My personal hope for the future is a world that is more equal. I believe the inequality of our world that is growing is really causing the root problems of a lot of the things we see: the economy of extraction and of exploiting nature and people. I think we need to work on equality, climate and nature together. By doing that, I hope we can create a more equal world.

Ani Dasgupta is the CEO and President of World Resources Institute (WRI).

WRI’s mission is to move human society to live in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations. WRI develop practical solutions that improve people’s lives and ensure nature can thrive. Their 1,700 staff have deep expertise in policy, research, data analysis, economics, political dynamics and more. They work with partners in more than 50 countries and currently have offices in 12 countries.

The IKEA Foundation is partnering with WRI because we believe they can support countries to achieve their goals, helping to limit the worst impacts of climate change and protecting the planet for families everywhere.