Dr Ashok Khosla OBE

Courtenay 1958

Ashok Khosla is one of world's leading experts on environment and sustainable development.  He was awarded the 2002 United Nations Sasakawa Environment Prize – the premier global prize in the field of environment, the 2004 Schwab Foundation Award for Outstanding Social Entrepreneur, the OBE in 2008 and the Zayed International Environment Prize in 2014.  In 2011, Dr Khosla was awarded the WWF’s highest honour, the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his outstanding, life-long service to the environment.

Born in India in 1940, the son of a university professor and a college lecturer, Khosla studied in various schools in some half dozen countries before he joined St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, Kent in 1955 to complete his last three years of high school.  Subsequently, he graduated with a degree in natural sciences from Peterhouse, Cambridge University before going on to do a PhD in experimental physics at Harvard University.

After a period of teaching courses at Harvard in Physics, Cosmology and the Environment - he was part of the team that designed and taught the world’s first undergraduate course on the environment - he returned to his native India where he became the founding director of the Indian government's Office of Environmental Planning and Co-Ordination, the first such agency in a developing country.  Over the next five years, he pioneered the design and implementation of the basic systems and structures needed to integrate the environment into the development process of a developing economy and to set and meet national environmental goals. Much of the rapid build-up of policy making processes and of public knowledge on environmental issues at the time was a result of the work done by the teams he led.

In 1976, he was appointed director in the United Nations Programme (UNEP), where he designed and launched INFOterra, the first global environmental information exchange. He oversaw the design and implementation of this international network, helping UNEP establish, in more than 100 countries, a solid recognition of the importance of reliable information and the need for environmental institutions.  He remained with UNEP until 1982. 

In 1983, Khosla founded the Development Alternatives group (DA) of organisations whose mission is to help make national development strategies in India become more environmentally and socially sustainable. Development Alternatives quickly became one of the leading environmental agencies in India and is now recognised worldwide as a premier institution concerned with the environment and sustainable development. Some of the DA’s more significant achievements include:  Introduction into the market of more than 25 new environmentally sound and commercially viable technologies. These include machines for weaving handloom textiles, making recycled paper and fabricating low-cost roofing materials, devices that use renewable energy for cooking, lighting and electricity, and the construction of low-cost housing.  

The work of the DA Group has led to the creation of more than half a million sustainable jobs and livelihoods in several states of India, the reduction of several thousand tons of carbon emissions and numerous other sustainable development outcomes.  An evaluation of one project funded by the UK Department of International Development (DFID) found that the outcome of the project included empowerment of 6.6 million rural citizens.

He has been a board member of numerous global environmental organizations – including as President of the Club of Rome, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and as member of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Winnipeg and World Resources Institute, India.  He has served as an adviser to, among others, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the Indian government.  From 2008 to 2017, he was Co-Chair of the UN’s International Resource Panel

In his presentation speech for the Sasakawa Award Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, described Khosla as "a legend in the realm of sustainable development, and an individual who personifies the hopes and dreams of billions trapped in the indignity of acute deprivation."

In the early 1960s, before the environment had become a public issue, he was a leading member of the team that designed and taught the first undergraduate course on the environment at Harvard University. Many features of the complex interactions between the environment and economic systems, human population and natural resources were recognised and explored in this ground-breaking course - some of the impacts of which are documented in the book The Earth in Balance written by a student of the course, former United States Vice-President, Mr. Al Gore.

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