rio+20 towards and beyond
Green Economy Debate at Rio+20: Did the venture pay off?
9 November 2012
Green Economy was taken up as one of two main themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, Rio+20) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012. The concept of sustainable development, which was advocated as the political goal of global society at the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, has been widely accepted as political rhetoric, but global society has failed to establish any clear vision to attain it. The organisers of Rio+20 may have intended to break out of this stagnant situation by narrowing down the scope of the discussion and focusing on the interlinkages between economy and environment (i.e. sidelining the social aspect) to seek concrete paths to promote sustainable development.
Economy and Environment Group
This move by the organisers was indeed a bold gamble; however, the green economy discussion of the official negotiation process became embroiled with this matter, resulting in highly ambiguous, bland statements on green economy in the final outcome document “The Future We Want”. At the beginning, negotiations on the document were opposed to sidelining the social aspect, and the theme was given the title “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty alleviation”, not just “green economy”. As time went on, conflicts flared up throughout the negotiation process between a group of members (mainly developed countries) who wanted to focus on the economy-environment nexus showing concrete paths, and another group (mainly emerging and developing countries) who wanted to contexualise green economy in the wider sustainable development debate to include the social aspect. As a result, “The Future We Want” tells us hardly anything about what green economy means in practice.

For example, at the beginning of the Green Economy section of “The Future We Want”, specifically paragraph 56, green economy is defined as “one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development and (...) it should contribute to eradicating poverty as well as sustained economic growth, enhancing social inclusion, improving human welfare and creating opportunities for employment and decent work for all, while maintaining the healthy functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems”. The whole paragraph does nothing more than inform us that green economy contributes to sustainable development. Indeed, the same observation applies to the whole Green Economy section of “The Future We Want”. The venture taken at the official negotiation process of the United Nations does not seem to have worked very well. However, it may be too hasty to conclude that the venture failed completely, based solely on the result of the official process mentioned above. There were several interesting initiatives launched at Rio+20 outside the official negotiation process, mainly at the side events. In addition, some interesting proposals and discussions emerged during the negotiation process, even though they were not adopted in the final outcome document. The following classification of various green economy concepts may help to convey the implications of taking up green economy at Rio+20 (See Figure 1).
The first approach is to integrate economic development and environmental protection through investing in and supporting so-called green technologies/sectors or technological innovations. This approach includes green new deal policies of many countries and the green innovation policy of the Government of Japan that stimulate the economy through large-scale public support of green technologies/sectors. Most developed countries promoting green economy adopt this approach.

The second approach is to integrate economic development and environmental conservation by making environmental conservation economically beneficial by internalising environmental externalities. A good example is environmental tax reforms in European countries. Reforming subsidies that increase negative environmental impacts (such as a subsidy for gasoline) or introducing green accounting are also categorised in this approach.

The third approach is to transform the socioeconomic system in which people can feel happy without exceeding the planetary boundary of resources and ecosystem services. Global warming and ongoing rapid destruction of ecosystems such as large-scale deforestation have raised concerns that human impacts on the Earth have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the globe. In particular, lavish lifestyles in developed countries are widely regarded as exacerbating overconsumption, going against the carrying capacity of the Earth. Under such circumstances it must be noted that the former two approaches will result in “greener economy”, which means the situation will become greener than the current situation, but they do not guarantee that a “green economy” will actually be realised, at least one which is consistent with the carrying capacity of the Earth.

Based on the above clarification, let us examine the significance of green economy discussions in the Rio+20 process. In the first approach of green technology/green industry promotion, the Rio+20 process did not generate a global consensus. Indeed, this approach can be implemented by motivated and capable countries, so the necessity of global agreement in this regard was low. In the second approach of internalisation of environmental costs, the official negotiation process did not yield significant results, but the side event on WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) organised by the World Bank achieved remarkable success in getting endorsement from 57 countries (plus the European Union) and 86 companies in response to targets of endorsement from more than 50 countries and 50 companies. In the third approach of pursuing wellbeing under environmental constraints, the zero draft of the Rio+20 outcome document drafted by the Rio+20 secretariat in January 2012 included a statement about the necessity of not exceeding the planetary boundary (this statement, however, did not remain in the final version). Moreover, a side event on alternative progress indicators (Beyond GDP) organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was enthusiastically received. These facts indicate that this approach is gaining momentum.

In a sense, the bold gamble to narrow down the scope to the interlinkage between economy and environment from wider context of sustainable development did in fact pay off outside the final outcome document and the official negotiation process to produce it. It seems a valid approach to break through the deadlocks that cannot be overcome under the unanimity rule of the United Nations.

*** The contents of this commentary are the opinions of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of IGES.

Go to top of page