In my last two posts on sustainable development in the lead up to Rio+20, I explored the concept of sustainable development, and wondered whether it was an oxymoron, as it now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. I emphasised that it is not ‘progress’ to continue on in this way, and that at this point in history, we need a paradigm shift, and that responsibility for that shift needs to be taken at both macro- and micro- scales.
I believe that once there is this ‘will’ that once people do take responsibility at all scales and are enabled to, that it is indeed physically possible to change direction, from one where a minority of people are (temporarily) benefiting at the expense of the majority, to one in which we can all flourish, and more fully enjoy life, permanently.
I believe the mechanism to align with, and implement, this paradigm shift is the ‘green economy’ – one of Rio+20’s two themes.
An economy consists of the labour, capital, land resources, manufacturing, production, trade, distribution and consumption of good and services, within a given area. It is therefore essentially a system, with inputs (labour, resources), which go through a process (manufacturing, refining), to produce outputs (food, water, computers, clothes, waste).
The only difference between traditional economies and the proposed ‘green economy’ is that for the first time, the world would acknowledge that this system is closed and finite. There are certain resources within the system that are not renewable (such as oil), and others that are renewable but exist in finite amounts (like water – there will always be the same amount of water molecules on Earth). Additionally, we only have so much surface area on Earth, of which the carrying capacity and suitability for uses varies greatly. We would also be acknowledging that some system outputs, such as carbon dioxide, have an impact on other potential system inputs, processes, and outputs.
For the first time, we would acknowledge that our current economic systems are counter-intuitive to development and human progress, and even, ironically, in conflict with the fundamental goal of capitalism, which is to add value to commodities such that products can be purchased by an entity, transformed into more valuable products, and resold at higher prices, thus paying for all steps along the way and adding profit, indefinitely. But I have already demonstrated how our current capitalist-based market economy has failed to operate in a manner in which it will be able to exist indefinitely.
For the first time, we would also acknowledge within our economies that we need to ensure the integrity of our natural asset base, which supports and gives rise to all socio-economic values we enjoy. It needs to be maintained, and improved from it’s current degraded state, to re-balance a system that now needs to support 7 billion people (and 9 billion people by 2050).
As my sister who is a personal trainer tells me, if you want to lose weight, you have to have a negative energy balance – more energy must be output than input, therefore, diet and exercise work in tandem to achieve this balance, resulting in a net weight loss. Similarly, if we want to ‘wind back’ the Earth into balance (a condition in which it only takes one year to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans, not 1.5 years), or better, give ourselves and future generations some ‘savings’, then we need to reduce consumption and production, whilst simultaneously improving the quality and quantity of our natural asset base.
The following diagram shows that in 2012, there is no country on Earth currently living within its ecological footprint, which also meets UNDP criteria for a high quality of life. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to, and as you can see, many countries are already close, and getting closer.
The Ecological Footprint for each country (in 2008) versus the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (in 2011): Source: Living Planet Report – WWF 2012
The Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI) accounts for inequality in each of the three dimensions of the HDI – education, life expectancy and income per capita – by “discounting” the average value of each one according to its level of inequality. Therefore, although the general shape of this graph is the same as in Figure 11a, many countries have moved to the left. Countries with less human development tend to have greater inequality in more dimensions – and thus see larger losses in their HDI value. Note: The development thresholds are the same in both this figure and Figure 11a to make it easier to compare the two of them. The IHDI values shown here are from 2011 – for more information see UNDP, 2011 (Global Footprint Network, 2011).
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as one that ‘…results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive.
UNEP’s Green Economy report – Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication (2011) – indicates that a green economy has the following components:
- Maintains and restores natural capital
- Renewable energy and low carbon technologies replace fossil fuels
- Promotes enhanced natural resource and energy efficiency
- More sustainable urban living and low-carbon mobility
It also summarises a number of key enabling conditions that have proven successful in promoting a green economic transition:
- Establishing sound regulatory frameworks
- Prioritising investment and spending in areas that stimulate the greening of economic sectors
- Limit spending in areas that deplete natural capital
- Employ taxes and market-based instruments to promote green investment and innovation
- Invest in capacity building, training, and education
- Strengthen international governance
It does not, as many people have been concerned, replace ‘sustainable development’, but recognises that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right.
It does also not, as I’m sure many people are afraid, mean the end of ‘capitalism’…I think there are both positive and negative aspects to capitalist principles and to bring about these changes quickly (as is imperative), people are going to have to know that there is money to make and jobs to be had. Indeed, I believe transiting to a green economy has the potential to offer much in this regard.
The world is still recovering from a global financial crisis, and the Eurozone situation continues to escalate. Instead of recognising the ‘root’ of these issues and seeing Rio+20 as the biggest opportunity to make progress in a number of these areas, important world leaders, like Obama and David Cameron, have shunned Rio+20 – a disappointing and shameful lack of leadership on the most pressing issues of our world today, and of a chance to be on the right side of history.
The purpose of this post is not to go into any of the above in detail, or to outline my views on how all this can be achieved practically, or get into a debate on population, or whether the developed or developing world or the BRICS countries have more responsibility for bringing about change, or whether Australian tax payers should be funding ‘billionaire welfare’ through $9.4 billion worth of fuel tax subsidies for the mining sector whilst simultaneously slashing the foreign aid budget by $2.9 billion, but to call out to my fellow development professionals to help people understand what sustainable development and the green economy are, and to gain your support and advocacy for them.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my year on a youth ambassador development program in Bangkok surrounded by an amazing bunch of intelligent, compassionate, and passionate people, it’s that all the issues we’re working on in development are inter-linked, and influence progress in one another. So if migration, peace and conflict, education, HIV/AIDs, gender equality, LGBT rights, child trafficking, food, water and energy security, or animal conservation is your ‘thing’, I hope that you join me in talking about sustainable development, Rio+20 and the green economy with everyone you know, to change the current ‘climate’ within society in relation to the environment and development issues. Because in essence, they’re one and the same issue.
The Author wishes to emphasise that sustainable development and planetary boundaries are not new concepts. Below are but a few links to some important material on the matter for interested readers:
1. Thomas Malthus (1798): An Essay on the Principle of Population
2. Club of Rome (1972): The Limits to Growth
3. Graham Turner, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (2008): A Comparison of the Limits to Growth With 30 Years of Reality
4. Oxfam International (2012): Introducing ‘The Doughnut’ of social and planetary boundaries for development
5. Simon L Lewis, Nature (2012): We must set planetary boundaries wisely