Another Attempt to Save the Planet?
The article below was published in TWN Features #3797 (April 2012).
ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO SAVE THE PLANET?
The Rio+20 conference in June will discuss the topic of Green Economy. One objective is to design ways of escaping the climate and food crisis. However, green technologies in themselves will not bring about the change we need. What is needed is a paradigm shift away from growth at all cost.
By Barbara Unmssig
The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was supposed to be a milestone in environmental policy. Nevertheless, all important global ecological problems have since only become worse. Neither governments nor industries really accept the fact that the Earth’s resources are limited and that climate change is happening fast. Nor do they challenge unabated growth as being the foremost economic objective. The race for resources of all kinds in any part of the world is increasingly leaving its mark on international affairs. The exploration and production of fossil fuels and large-scale commercial agriculture are being further expanded.
One thing, however, has changed since Rio 1992. Investments in more efficient technologies and renewable energies are increasing. This has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and emerging markets are getting heavily involved. Eco-friendly innovations, investments and products are known as the Green Economy, which is one of the topics for Rio+20, the follow-up to the 1992 conference in June this year, once more in Rio.
Rio+20 is supposed to draft a roadmap towards greener development. However, as anyone observing the preparations for the new Earth Summit will know, even the definition of Green Economy itself is a matter of controversy. Large sectors of global civil society only see it as an extremely profitable business sector which is not paying attention to issues of power and equity instead of shifting the global policy emphasis away from free trade and growth.
Among developing countries and emerging markets, the approaches to the topic diverge. Some are interested in new investments and business opportunities, others remain sceptical, fearing that the Green Economy could lead to protectionism, for example in disguise of environmental policy.
The Green Economy won’t do
It is interesting to see who is currently promoting what kind of idea on how to design the Green Economy. With its Green Economy Initiative, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published the most important proposal. A report, released in February 2011, forecasts positive effects that green investments would have on employment, resources, emissions and the environment. The message to the main addressees of the report, the governments of the Global South, is that the Green Economy is viable.
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation) presented a strategy called “Towards green growth” last May. Its target group was the industrial nations. The document called for new drivers of growth in order to reduce the depletion of natural capital. The impetus is to make production more efficient by promoting innovations and to stimulate demand for eco-friendly products. The OECD points out that such investments boost growth.
The good news is that both documents accept the realities of climate change and dwindling resources. Both demand immediate action and emphasise carbon-free business and resource efficiency in general. In view of strapped public budgets, the private sector would have to drive change, so they call for designing policy environments in ways that favour eco-friendly business.
The snag, however, is that neither UNEP nor the OECD fundamentally challenge the growth paradigm. Nor do they say what form of growth might be necessary to achieve the dual objectives of sparing resources and reducing poverty. They hardly mention social issues including the rights to food, water, education or access to land.
In this perspective, the Green Economy is only about business parameters like efficiency and productivity. The ideas are not put into a context of social and environmental norms, laws and standards. The issues of power and distributive justice are not addressed. The transformation humankind urgently needs, however, will only happen with strong political will. Priorities must be decarbonisation, reduction of resource-intense consumption as well as the rejection of high-risk technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering.
What should the future of agriculture be? Today, large-scale commercial farms account for about 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When all emissions that relate to changes of land use are factored in, the share rises to 32%. Agriculture is thus an important cause of biodiversity loss and over-consumption of water resources. It is a reason for the acidification of waters and the logging of forests. Moreover, huge areas of farm land are deteriorating because they are not used in a sustainable way. According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), degradation affects about one third of the world’s arable land today.
At the same time, the global demand for crops and animal products is steadily rising because the world’s middle class is growing. Accordingly, consumer habits are changing, especially in regard to food. By 2050, 9 billion people will have to be fed in spite of climate change and fast depleting resources.
Agriculture, for good reason, will be high on the Rio+20 agenda. It would be welcome if the conference managed to make the global shift to environmentally sustainable farming to prevent resource depletion and damage to the environment. There is not only scope for reducing agricultural emissions, moreover. This sector could even offset some of its own emissions through sustainable land use. If, in addition, gender-specific and other social issues are tackled, agriculture could also contribute to reducing poverty.
In order to strengthen small farmers, any meaningful strategy will have to tackle the issues of access to land, water, seeds, extension services, credit and marketing opportunities. It is becoming evident that the growth of agriculture is constrained by the finite resources of water and arable land. The debate on the Green Economy must look beyond technology in this particular sector. Questions arise concerning the equitable distribution of resources, elite interests and multinational corporations. Power relations must change, and institutional and social innovations must serve distributive justice in this sector. A fundamental re-think of trade and investment policy is inevitable.
It would thus be a real step forward towards a truly global Green Economy if governments agreed on several principles at Rio+20:
About the writer: Barbara Unmssig is a board member of the Heinrich B๖ll Foundation, which is close to Germany’s Green party. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, she coordinated Germany’s civil society organisations.
article is reproduced from the Development and Cooperation (D+C) Vol.53,
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