The Green Economy or the Greed Economy?

The choice of the ‘green economy’ as one of the main themes for the next world Earth Summit (Rio +20) seemed to appeal to a range of governments on the basis that it could provide an optimistic and forward looking agenda.

Creating jobs, promoting economic growth AND saving the planet, nothing less than a win-win scenario. However, some of the discussions during the Commission on Sustainable Development and the first Prep Com for Rio + 20 suggested that the notion of the green economy is not being greeted with equal enthusiasm. Why? Well, for many, the theme of the green economy risks distracting from the more critical job of making sure that sustainable development commitments made over the last 40 years are actually implemented. This sentiment is particularly prevalent amongst Southern civil society actors who are concerned that the momentum towards more substantial and systemic global change may be lost to focus on narrower, market-orientated goals.

Another concern is that the newfound taste for the green economy is seeking to replace sustainable development, and with it the focus on poverty alleviation, social progress and equity. Simply re-orientating global investment into green industries such as renewable energy and hydrogen powered cars will not by default lead to positive social outcomes, especially if the fruits of industry remain concentrated in the hands of the few.

As Leida Rijnhoutt, Director of European NGO ANPED quite rightly points out, advocates of the green economy must be careful that they are not simply promoting ‘green greed’ rather than an economic system that has social equity at its heart. Furthermore, developing country actors are weary of engaging in a discussion on the green economy that could lead to the imposing of a ‘regime’ of international taxes and trade regulations that is harmful to developing country interests. Many in the South still rightly feel resentful about WTO rules and World Bank/ IMF dictates that have both negatively impacted the ability of developing countries to achieve meaningful poverty eradication, as well as making it almost impossible for them to take the necessary steps toward sustainable development. With the recent proposition in the US Waxman- Markey bill to impose trade tariffs on high carbon imports (which would essentially impose a tax on developing country products), it is understandable that developing countries are not quite as ready to welcome the global green economy with open arms.

Chee Yoke Ling of Third World Network is one of the civil society actors vocally questioning what a green economy ‘really means’, and by this sending a clear message that developing counties will not sign up without reading the small print.

This suspicion of the green economy agenda is understandable, and this makes it critical that discussions in the run-up to Rio+20 actively seek to address these issues and promote viable solutions. Currently Governmental and Non-governmental stakeholders alike are getting rather preoccupied with the need to ‘define’ a green economy, concerned that noone really knows what a green economy looks like. Yet the real challenge lies not in crafting the definition, but in agreeing the principles that should underpin a green economy. There exist a vast range of approaches – contrary to the notion that we are working off a ‘clean
slate’ or ‘reinventing the wheel’, people have been studying and talking about green economies with varying degrees of profile since the Club of Rome ‘Limits to Growth’ report in the 1970s. As such, there are advocates of economic systems based on green growth, green jobs, de-growth, steadystate, beyond GDP, payment for ecosystem services, to name but a few. It will be important towards Rio+20 to borrow principles from all these movements to create a common consensus.

So what kind of principles seem to be emerging around a Green Economy? Our work with global stakeholders suggests a number of themes. Firstly there is the principle of a paradigm shift – it is clear that any green economy must represent a departure from the consumption-fuelled economies that have defined development for too long; secondly there is the principle of recognising the role of the public sector and the state in advancing a green economy – reigning in the unfettered and deregulated markets that have brought our global economy to the brink of total collapse. Thirdly there is widespread support for the principle of valuing the services provided by ecosystems through effective regulation and policy frameworks – the current situation whereby the true ecological costs of production are neither recognised nor valued is simply untenable. Fourthly, the need to move away from purely financial indicators of success is critical for instigating the necessary macro-economic, social and cultural shift and redefining of prosperity that a meaningful green economy might entail – GDP is a fundamentally reductionist and often counterproductive measurement of prosperity and progress. Fifthly, the principle of equity and social justice must be at the heart of a green economy – the transition to a green economy must not foster a new generation of ‘green billionaires’, on the contrary it should seek to cultivate a socially just, redistributive and responsible economic system. Lastly, and most importantly, the green economy should embed the principle of fairness at a global level and provide developing countries with the finance, technology transfer and capacity assistance that might enable this transition, rather than imposing more punitive international regimes.

These principles will be expanded upon significantly in the coming two years, but perhaps offer a basis for moving forward that mainstreams the notion of equity, true prosperity and fairness. As one eloquent stakeholder put it during one of the discussions on equity and the green economy –”we are currently experiencing a cacophony of different voices that must be brought together in a symphony’.

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