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From Sustainable Development To Green Economy ? What Does This Mean For Women?

Source: Association for Women's Rights in Development - Wed, 14 Mar 2012 13:31 GMT
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By Diana Aguiar

This article is part of a series of Friday Files to explore some of the issues and debates related to the AWID 2012 Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power. For more information related to the planet and ecological health click here.

Twenty years after the first United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 it is clear that governments have failed to implement development models that are socially just and environmentally sustainable. It is in the context of revision of the of sustainable development framework that Rio+20 will take place.

In 1983 in response to the growing evidence of an ecological crisis, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly created the World Commission on Environment and Development to analyze the environmental situation and its relationship with development.  In 1987 it presented recommendations for action in a report called “Our Common Future”, better known as the Brundtland Report. This report later became the basis for the negotiations of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  Also known as the Earth Summit, UNCSD was a landmark UN conference of the 1990s, and a key process in shaping the international order in the post-Cold War era. Agenda 21, the resulting document of the Earth Summit, became the reference to the debate on sustainable development.

From Sustainable Development to Green Economy

Arguably one of the most important issues at stake now (as was the case then) is the question of the (in) compatibility of a development model based on growth with the goal of environmental sustainability. With over 50 years of international cooperation for development, the idea of development, together with human rights, has become one of the defining values of our times. It is the basis of policies and political agendas and has been used to justify revolutions and market conservatism alike.

However, with the increasing prevalence of ecological disasters, such as those related to climate change, and growing scarcity of resources, the limits of the planet to sustain a development model based on growth were apparent then and continue to be so now.

The Brundtland Report established “sustainable development” as one of the key concepts in terms of reenergizing the idea of development. Sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" and was based on "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of economic development, social development, and environmental protection.

However, critics argued that the report failed to acknowledge the need to rethink the logic of capital accumulation inherent in a model of development that has growth as the key objective. This model of development is based on the assumption that growth will naturally trickle down, ultimately reducing poverty. But accumulated experience has shown that – left only to the market – growth will not result in increased social, gender or race equality. In addition economic growth has often been based on the overconsumption of a few and the underconsumption of the majority. Instead of thinking of redistribution, this mainstream development model places the level of consumption by the elite as the goal for all, when we know this is unsustainable given the limited resources of our planet.

In this framework, economic growth remains the goal, even though overproduction failed to lessen inequalities, has not led to redistribution, has further depleted natural resources and increased pollution, waste, etc. and global warming; leading our planet to a deadlock.

Twenty years later, with clear shortcomings in the “sustainable” nature of the model, the Rio+20 process is again failing to recognize the limits of unrestricted faith in economic growth as the means for development. In fact, a new concept is being put forward as an answer to the environment/development-as-growth dilemma: Green Economy.

What is Green Economy?

The concept of green economy has created a lot of buzz, although many argue the concept is still “under construction”. According to its defenders, such as the EU, the US and UN agencies, it does not replace sustainable development, but is rather a means to achieve it.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has put a lot of effort in defining green economy in its 600 page report titled “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication”. It defines “green economy [a]s 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."[1]

An analysis by the Transnational Institute states, that “according to the UNEP, through a transition to the green economy it will be possible to re-launch the global economy with rates of growth far higher than the current model. It will be possible to create more and better employment, reduce poverty, reach greater levels of equality, meet the millennium objectives, and all in a sustainable way, recognizing the value of nature and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This would reduce pressure on the natural environment, allowing it to recover, while, at the same time, creating new and profitable areas of investment that will enable global capital to escape from the crisis and increase its profits.”[2] If it sounds too good to be true that’s because it is.

UNEP’s report on the green economy is based on the rejection of what it calls a myth of the dilemma between economic progress and environmental sustainability. It says that current multiples crises (financial, food, water, energy, environment and economic recession) were caused by “misallocation of capital” towards economic activities that are carbon intensive as opposed to “renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, and land and water conservation”[3]. This misallocation of capital is seen as a “market failure” due to “faulty information” and inadequate public policies to incorporate the environmental costs of economic activities. The answer, they propose is “adequate” policies to increase access to information to markets to raise incentives to redirect allocation of capital from “brown investments” to “green investments and green innovations”[4].

The report insists on the idea that a green economy will actually allow for higher growth rates, as long as markets perceive “green investments” as financially profitable, thus placing environmental sustainability under the neoliberal value of profit maximization. This is the logic behind one of the main (and much critiqued) instruments of the new “green deal”: carbon markets and the market-based Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). But these arguments fail to recognize that decisions made by transnational corporations are often based on short-term profit maximization, not on lack of information regarding “green investments”.

As Rio+20 draws closer, and the green economy framework is defined in those terms, it is likely that we will see an outcome document that only reinforces the contradictions of current mainstream model of development based on unrestricted faith on growth as the means to reach social and gender equality and environmental sustainability.

Women’s and social movements engagement in Rio+20

Given what is at stake, Rio+20 has become the key process for social movements in 2012. The Women’s Major Group (WMG) has been the formal women’s platform following the official negotiations processes. In the most recent Rio+20 Intersessional, Anita Nayar from DAWN delivered the address from the WMG, raising the lack of reference to women in the current inter-governmental process, in contrast to 1992 UNCSD’s Agenda 21, which noted that gender must be cross-cutting.

The WMG’s submission also argues for the need to “realize that limitless economic growth does not equate with wellbeing or sustainability” and therefore, there is the need for indicators that would lead to the recognition of “the unequal and unfair burden that women carry in sustaining collective well-being”, as well as recovering the consensus that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, which are a matter of grave concern and aggravate poverty and imbalances”. Furthermore, the WMG called for a “universal social protection floor” and the monitoring, regulating and holding accountable of corporations for “their ecologically and socially unsustainable practices”.

The local committee organizing the Rio+20 People’s Summit is leading broad-based mobilizations by social movements. The  Thematic Social Forum that took place in Porto Alegre from 24-29 January 2012 was a key moment for linking the various struggles of resistance to the neoliberal market-based model of development occurring throughout the world - from the Arab Spring, Indignados movements, Occupy Wall Street, mobilizations against Free Trade Agreements, against G20 agreements, and broadly the resistances to false market solutions (from REDD+ to biofuels and GMOs, etc.) to ecological crises.

In January 2012, the zero draft of the negotiating text came out. It reflects the fears of social movements in terms of how little it provides for overcoming the failed development model. The negotiations are on course until the actual Conference in June and civil society has to move forward to do advocacy on the possible outcome document.

Further reading

[1]UNEP, 2011, Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, p16

[2] Edgardo Lander, “The Green Economy: the Wolf in Sheep’s clothing”. Transnational Institute (TNI), 2011, p4

[3] Ibid p5

[4]Ibid p6

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