Twenty years after the first Rio climate talks, UN members will meet again to develop strategies for a green economy. One aspect of the debate is whether the shift to a green economy will hinder developing countries.
First economic growth, then environmental protection. This unwritten law seems to have backed environmentalists into a corner ever since the first UN climate summit in Rio in 1992, observes Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a resource economist at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).
"Trade is sacred, and the environment can come into consideration only once people are rich enough to care about it," the economist summed up.
Weizsäcker said he believes wealthy industrial nations have long embodied this philosophy, and developing nations have taken it on too.
"When I talk with representatives from developing countries about green economic principles, it seems as if they want to get rich and dirty first, so they find all this talk about a green economy uninteresting," Weizsäcker said.
Ecology and economy: a contradiction?
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has worked in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit in June to eliminate the resistance to building a world economy around ecological principles.
It is a myth to think that there is a natural contradiction between economic success and the protection of natural resources, the UN chief said when presenting a 600-page UNEP report stressing the positive effects of renewable energies and technologies for labor markets in developing and emerging economies. Ban said he believes, however, that the right political approach could help decouple economic growth from excessive energy use and CO2 emissions.
But S. E. Everton Viera Vargas, Brazil's ambassador to Germany, said such a program is only possible if climate diplomacy begins to address the real agents of change: private companies, NGOs and citizens themselves.
"It's only with their engagement that we will ultimately be able to create a green economy," the ambassador said.
But perhaps a solution like that fails to appreciate how important the state can be in promoting a greener economy. Janos Pastzor, the executive secretary of the UN's panel on global sustainability, has argued for more state intervention backed by binding UN resolutions.
Pasztor has given special attention to publicly awarded contracts. States should align these contracts with more environmentally friendly criteria because, "in many countries, public acquisition makes up to 30 percent of all state emissions," he said.
If the universal standards were agreed upon under the supervision of the UN, emerging and developing nations could transition more quickly into the age of the green economy.
"That would quicken the demand for new, climate friendly technology," Pasztor added
Technology is not enough
Barbara Unmüßig certainly wouldn't dispute Pasztor's argument, but the climate protection expert from the Heinrich Böll Foundation doesn't think this approach is enough. She said the discussion thus far has focused too heavily on technological innovation and not enough on ceasing consumption of resources.
"It's as if we're suggesting that we can fix this problem with technological innovation alone," Unmüßig said. "There's no talk about changing our lifestyle, and there's also no talk about how the wealthy North needs to reduce its high consumption level in favor of the poorer South."
Alongside the establishment of a working group to appraise the effects of technology at the UN level, the climate expert said she would like to see a more sophisticated approach to the conflicts that green technologies can create.
"Rich countries' desire to fill up their cars in an eco-friendly way with bio-ethanol shouldn't cause food prices to skyrocket," Unmüßig said.
She added that existing concepts for reconfiguring economies in an environmentally friendly way are often blind to these kinds of cause-and-effect scenarios, and that has to change, particularly in order to help the world's 2 billion impoverished people on the way to a greener economy.
Wealth as environmental problem
Wealth is the greatest roadblock, not poverty, argues Marianne Fay, the World Bank's chief economist for sustainable development. “The needs of the poor aren't a danger to sustainability,” she said. Fay justified her statement with a model calculation from the World Bank.
The model assumes that the 1.3 billion people currently without access to electricity are immediately connected to the power grid. Even in an unfavorable situation, for example, if coal-burning power stations produced the entire demand for electricity, the resulting CO2 emissions would still be controllable, said Fay.
"That type of increase in CO2 emissions could be compensated for if all Americans exchanged their cars for more economical European models," she said.
Many other changes in consumption and behavior within the wealthy world would be appropriate, she said and added that calls to limit consumption in developing and emerging nations were misguided.
Heinz Leuenberger, the director of environmental management for the UN industrial organization UNIDO, wants to strengthen the common interests shared by industrial and emerging nations. Greater incentives for both sides would work well for optimizing resources in industrial production processes, not to mention the enormous potential to save money.
“In the Western countries, resource efficiency can be increased up to 50 percent, in developing countries even up to 90 percent,” he said.
The path to a green economy cannot avoid improving efficiency, nor cannot it ignore the need to reduce resource consumption.
"In Europe, we use about 14 to 15 tons of material per person per year. True sustainability wouldn't begin occur unless it was six tons per person per year,” said Leuenberg. Technology and the transfer of knowledge more than anything could slow CO2 emissions."
The rebound effect
Resource economist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker is still trying to find a way around the rebound effect that hinders reductions in CO2 emissions."This can mean that if you have a five-fold increase in resource productivity, you'll also see a five-fold increase in consumption," Weizsäcker said.
But that's not a green economy at all, Weizsäcker continued, and argued that price signals should make it clear that a pro-environment economy can't be had for nothing.
"Only once we've raised prices so that they tell at least half of the ecological truth can we have a chance at efficiency that doesn't damage our environment," he said.
First economic growth, then environmental protection - this principle will have to be discarded if the green economy is to be realized, whether in the North or in the South.
Author: Richard Fuchs / kms, gsw
Editor: Sean Sinico
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