At a time of great global change, and as the world is set to redefine the global development agenda, it is timely to consider a new way of viewing the world – one that recognises the critical importance of the tropics and its key role in the global future.

Below are just some of the reasons why the tropics is the most important region of the world – welcome to the tropical century!

It's where most of the people will be

Currently around 40% of the world’s population live in the tropics. At current rates of population growth, by 2050, more than half of the world’s people will live in the region. The greatest rates of growth are in Africa where between now and 2050, 1.8 billion babies will be born, and its population will have doubled. Nigeria’s population alone will exceed that of the U.S. In Asia, the population of the tropical region of India alone will be close to that of the U.S and Europe combined.

But not only is the population growing rapidly, it is becoming increasingly affluent as more people rise out of poverty. This will provide great opportunities for business and investment due to increasing consumption and the innovative potential of a diverse workforce. Crucially, however, these changes will also put unprecedented pressure on the world’s environment and natural resources. The challenge of sustainable development in the tropics is one of the most important global issues of our time.

It's where most of the children are

Arguably more important than reason #1, just over half of the world’s children under 15 years old currently live in a tropical region – by 2050, two out of every three will be living in the tropics – most of them in tropical Africa. This will present great challenges but also enormous opportunities.

Given the right policy responses, a young, educated, working population can provide the demographic dividend needed to lift tropical nations out of poverty.  We need to ensure that these young people can grow up in a place where they can participate and contribute meaningfully to their nations and build productive and satisfying lives for themselves and their families, or we must consider the alternative, including the potential for new waves of extremism off the back of alienation, disadvantage and poverty.

The greatest diversity of plants and animals

Biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth – includes every species of bacteria, virus, plant, fungi, and animal, as well as the interactions between them and the ecosystems in which they live. The tropics are the most diverse region on Earth, hosting about 80% of the planet’s terrestrial species and over 95% of its corals and mangroves.

Diverse and healthy natural ecosystems provide benefits vital for life on Earth and human  well being and prosperity. People rely on biodiversity and ecosystem services for sustenance, health, and enjoyment. Human communities derive all food and many medicines and industrial products from wild and domesticated components of biological diversity.

The greatest diversity of cultures as well

The cultures of the tropics are diverse and rich. In fact, most of the world’s languages are spoken in a broad area on either side of the Equator – in South-east Asia and the Pacific, India, Africa, and South America.

Concentrations of linguistic diversity can be found in Papua New Guinea (820 languages); Indonesia (700 languages); India (447 languages); Congo (242 languages); and Myanmar (100 languages). Other nations such as Vanuatu, Brazil and Indonesia also have rich linguistic diversity. There are more than 2000 languages spoken throughout Africa, compared with just over 200 in Europe.

Diversity of culture is an asset for the tropics. Differences in language and culture provide different perspectives on the region’s unique challenges. Languages that have evolved alongside complex ecosystems provide unique insight about how to use, manage and preserve those ecosystems. The secrets to sustainable development in the tropics may well be found in the culture and languages of the people who reside there – rather than policies and solutions imposed from the outside.

Growing richer quickly

Over the past 30 years, economic growth in the tropics has outperformed the rest of the world by almost 20%. The sum of tropical economies, the global tropical product is projected to reach US $40 trillion by 2025. Under most future scenarios, nations with young populations such as Indonesia, India, Nigeria and the Philippines are set to become major global economies over the next century. By the end of this century, tropical nations such as India, Indonesia and Nigeria will be among the largest economies in the world. India’s economy may well outgrow China’s.

Based on current trends, the aggregated purchasing power of emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico could overtake that of the G7 but 2013. The Asia Pacific already has a larger middle class than Europe and North America combined.

Understanding the nature of this growth, the demographics of tropical populations and the needs and aspirations of tropical people; particularly in relation to demand for goods and services, will be fundamental for sustainable development in the region and therefore the planet.

Growing trade and investment

Trade has been a vital contributor to the development of human societies and culture for millennia. Growth in the value of trade in the tropics is more than twice that of rest of the world. Exports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP have grown rapidly in the tropics over the 30 years to 2010, increasing from 25 to 47% of GDP. Over the same period, import volume in the region grew by 210%. During this time South East Asia was the largest trading region and South Asia had the greatest growth.

Before 2010, the largest cargo hub in the world was Memphis International Airport in the US, since then however, the tropical Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong moves the largest amount of freight, in 2014 this equated to more than 4.4 million tonnes.

Investment in the region has grown as well.  In the 30 years to 2010, foreign direct investment in the Tropics increased from 0.7% of GDP to 3.5% in while in the rest of the World it increased from 0.5% of GDP to 1.6%. Future policies should enable an international investment regime that promotes sustainable development in the region. Tropical nations will need to strike the right balance between liberalisation and regulation and enhance the interfaces between investment and development such as those between investment and poverty (UNCTAD 2010) and those that provide adequate protection for the environment.

The tropics drive the global climate

The tropics are the dominant player in the global climate system. Just a few decades ago, meteorological research was focussed on mid-latitude circulation with the tropics receiving little attention. However recent research, particularly around the El NiƱo-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon has altered our view of global climate. We know now that ENSO is the largest single source of global climate variability. What is important here is that ENSO events are predictable. This has enormous societal benefit as forecasts allow climate- vulnerable regions time to prepare for adverse environmental conditions.

Climate change will have huge impacts in the tropics

Forget about the poster child of climate change impacts – the polar bear. Tropical biodiversity is much more susceptible to environmental impacts, including climate change. Species in the tropics are inherently more vulnerable to changes in their environment because they tend to occupy small geographic ranges, are naturally rarer and are specialised to deal with a narrow range of environmental conditions.

For all major groups assessed by the IUCN, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and trees, the tropics have the highest number and proportion of threatened species. Some regions have more species at risk than others, with especially high numbers under threat in tropical Asia, the Amazon and island nations.

There are also great unknowns about climate change and the tropics. The predicted changes in climate are set to lead to conditions which have no precedence. Outside the Tropics, it is possible to get a rough idea of future changes in natural systems by looking towards the equator, where temperatures are already warmer. For equatorial regions there are no existing analogues for the climates predicted for the second half of this century. Singapore will not just be warmer than it is now, but warmer than anywhere on Earth with year round rainfall.

What we do know about climate change in the tropics that rising temperatures and changing rainfall regimes will have huge impacts on a region which has remained climatically stable for the past three million years.

Techno Tropics

Over the past decade the mobile phone has emerged as one of the fastest growing consumer technologies ever introduced. Mobile telephony is the basic means of communications for many people in tropical countries. It requires less investment in terms of infrastructure and it’s therefore outpacing the growth of fixed line telephones.

In the three years to 2013, the fastest growing markets for mobile phones were all in the tropics:

  • Myanmar has the world’s fastest growth rate: between 2010 and 2013, mobile phone use increased by more than 1000%
  • Mobile phone use in Somalia grew by more than 600%
  • There are 30% more mobile phones in the Tropics than there were in 2010
  • There are now more mobile phones than people in Mali and Cambodia, with both nations growing from just over 50% to around 130% in 2013
  • The proportion of people with mobile phone subscriptions increased from under 70% to more than 85% in the Tropics
  • Globally in 2013 it was estimated that almost 30% of these subscriptions were for smartphones – a proportion expected to be 50% by 2016 and more than 80% by 2020
  • Internet use in 2013 still trailed mobile phone use in the Tropics at only 24%, however there’s been a 54% increase since 2010

The mobile phone and internet access is allowing people of the tropics to interact with each other and the rest of the world in a whole new way. The next few years will see, alongside the growing availability and affordability of smartphones, the people of the tropics becoming part of the global conversation and driving policy change, rather than simply being the recipients of it.