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 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.