Green economy: gain or pain for the earth's poor? Green economy: gain or pain for the the Earth’s poor?


The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) will take place in 2012, marking two decades of official international action on sustainable development. In the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the international community came to recognize the unequal and unsustainable character of dominant development patterns. At the same time, it committed to take steps towards more equitable and sustainable development, and produced the conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the Agenda 21 action plan.


Twenty years on, the world finds itself far off track in realizing the vision of Rio. Global economic expansion continues to severely strain the environment. Humanity’s ecological footprint now exceeds the planet’s biocapacity by over 50%, and three of nine planetary boundaries that define the safe operating space for human life on Earth have been breached.


Yet, despite the vast amounts of wealth being produced, the benefits and costs are shared very unequally. The wealthiest 20 per cent of humankind are responsible for nearly 80% of greenhouse gas emissions while enjoying over 70% of total world income. Half of the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day, nearly 1 billion live in hunger, and close to 2 billion are trapped in multidimensional poverty.2 The bottom 20% share only 1% of world income but suffer the worst consequences of the climate crisis generated by this economic system.


Other social aspects of development have only seen marginal improvements over the last decades including access to educaton, health care, safe water and sanitation, and resources especially land. Yet many of the gains achieved in these fronts are being reversed by the current economic and ecological crises.


Widening social and economic disparities, widespread injustice and exclusion are the seedbed of growing social unrest today. Recent surveys indicate a declining trend in people’s confidence in the ability of governments to deal with the multiple crises faced by the majority. Contemporary events offer ample proof with the uprisings in the Arab region, general strikes and peoples assemblies in many parts of Europe, riots in London, mass demonstrations by the hundreds of thousands in Latin America and other continents; occupations in the US spreading out to scores of other countries; and countless other workers strikes, people’s protest or community struggles throughout the world.


The upcoming UNCSD should therefore be a challenge and an opportunity for the world’s leaders to confront the economic, ecological and social crises gripping the world today. However, many civil society groups and even some governments express concern that the chosen major themes of the 2012 UNCSD—the “Green Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication” and the “Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development” — do not adequately or holistically address the social, economic and ecological dimensions of sustainable development. Indeed, there is a lot of attention being directed towards the Green Economy in particular, raising fears that it may become the new framework for sustainable development in place of the long-recognized three pillars.


For instance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) aseserts that there is “growing recognition that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right”. For this reason, there is a need to examine the concept of a Green Economy and how it proposes to advance economic, ecological and social sustainability.




The concept of Green Economy (GE) has gradually emerged and caught the attention of global policy bodies in recent years. In December 2009, the UN called for a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and later identified “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” as one of its two major themes.


Then in February this year, after an extensive three-year study, the UNEP came up with a 626-page Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, commonly known as the Green Economy Report (GER).


Just this May, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its own Green Growth Strategy (GGS), on which it will base its policy positions in the Rio+20 conference, building from its earlier “Declaration on Green Growth” in June 2009. Other major development actors have declared their positions or critiques, in one form or another, on the Green Economy. Defining GE is a challenge because the concept is still evolving—and in different directions at that, due to the influence of several streams of discourse and practice.


But social movements must closely follow its evolution so they can critique it, or try to influence its shape and course in the pursuit of genuine environmental balance, economic prosperity, and social progress.




One obvious influence behind the GE concept is that of sustainable development, expressed through UN processes from the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the 1987 Brundtland Report to the 1992 Rio summit. The Rio summit had come up with a 27-point Declaration of Principles and a 40-chapter Agenda 21, which implementation were left to the voluntary action of states and were soon overrun by the globalization steamroller of the Washington Consensus. There was one other stream of discourse and practice that gradually ran in parallel with UN processes: that of pursuing green business, with the 1989 book Blueprint for a Green Economy as an early pioneer.


Developed countries especially in Europe began to develop “environmental technologies” or “eco-industries,” i.e., low-carbon and small-footprint energy and production systems that offered room for economic growth while helping to satisfy their UNFCCC-Kyoto commitments, and which were given positive marks in an EC-commissioned 2006 study.


The growing Northern interest in ecosystems-based economics took a crucial turn when the G8+5’s 2007 Potsdam ministerial meeting launched a strategic study led by senior banker Pavan Sukhdev of Deutschebank to measure environmental disruption and weigh green alternatives in hard-nosed money terms. In May 2008, the Sukhdev team presented The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)’s Phase I report at the UNEP-linked CBD meeting in Bonn.


Five months later, responding to the triple whammy of financial, food and fuel crises that year, UNEP and leading economists launched the Green Economy Initiative (GEI) to refocus the global economy “towards investments in clean technologies and ‘natural’ infrastructure such as forests and soils,” and thus create green business and job opportunities. As one of GEI’s main outputs, the monumental Green Economy Report (GER) was released in February 2011 by the UNEP study team, also led by Sukhdev, just as the Rio+20 agenda began to take detailed shape.