Alumnus Dr Emmanuel D’Silva inspires environmental change

The people of the world will do what is right when it comes to the burgeoning climate crisis. Eventually.

That is the view of sustainability expert, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumnus Dr Emmanuel D’Silva.

Dr D’Silva, who has a PhD in Environmental Studies from the University, is an independent consultant working on various grassroots projects, including converting waste into energy, “green roofs”, and conservation agriculture.

He now divides his time between Mumbai, in India, and Washington DC.

Over more than three decades, two of those decades as an employee of the World Bank, he has worked on a variety of projects and programmes in agriculture, forestry, and environment in Asia and Africa.

Dr D’Silva says he is optimistic the world will “do the right thing” in terms of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and trying to minimise global temperature increases.

“But there are days when I have doubts. More public pressure is needed on political and business leaders to act. Science is not enough.

“Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has brought new energy by organising school kids to ‘strike for the climate’. But two other things are needed–the climate movement needs to spread globally, and we need to make changes to our lifestyles.”

Dr D’Silva was born in Kinnigoly in southern India and grew up in Mumbai.

“Life was hard in the 1960s. Jobs were few, and shortages of food and goods were widespread.

“My dad lost his job in a textile mill as synthetics replaced cotton. If it weren’t for my mother, who believed I deserved a good education, I probably would have been pulled out of school, because we couldn’t afford the tuition fee.

“I am what I am today on account of my mother, who never went to school.”

On a visit to Wellington in 1997 to see his brother Frank, Dr D’Silva toured the University campus. He met now-retired Associate Professor John McKinnon, who persuaded him to do a PhD.

“He turned out to be a great adviser. The University offered flexibility and respected my field experience.

“For me, doing a PhD at Victoria was an absolute joy. I can’t think of any downside, except a disappointment that I was not able to convert my thesis into a book. The PhD has helped me sharpen analyses of projects and policies.”

People’s participation in carbon neutrality

Sustainability is a relatively new concept, Dr D’Silva says.

“It wasn’t studied when I went to high school. The catalyst for my interest was the emergence of an idea in the early 1990s that ‘people’s participation’ was necessary in public projects and government policy.

“I got to witness this first-hand when I was working in a group of villages in southern India, so decided to document the process of people’s participation in forest management and get a PhD out of it.

“A friend for more than 30 years, Narendra Jindal, and I have now set up over 60 biogas plants across India run on food, animal, and human wastes. I am also piloting a ‘carbon farming’ project with two groups of Indian farmers who will be paid for storing carbon in their soils.

“The carbon project is progressing well, but it is too early to provide results, since it only started in June 2019. We took soil samples from the first harvest, which looked promising.

“The second samples are to be taken this month (April) after the second crop, but this is up in the air now on account of the coronavirus and the lockdown in India.”

Dr D’Silva worked as a technical adviser to the Xavier Institute of Management in Jamshedpur on preparing a road map to carbon neutrality in 10 years.

“The institute has taken some bold measures in going for renewable energy, converting cafeteria waste into gas, and opting for energy-efficient lighting, but is struggling with reducing the use of motor vehicles on campus and offsetting emissions.”

Dr D’Silva is impressed with Victoria University of Wellington’s climate change and environmental initiatives.

“I am pleased the University is planning to reach zero carbon emissions by 2030. Since I have been advising the Xavier Institute to reach a similar goal, I know it is not easy.

“Switching to renewable energy, offsetting travel emissions and achieving zero waste are difficult but necessary actions that need to be taken. People expect universities to lead. The University could do more, for example, in eliminating plastic waste–a huge problem the world over.”

Dr D’Silva says he would love to come back to Wellington one day to visit friends and colleagues and to compare notes with others working in his field.