RIO+20: Toward a new green economy — or a green-washed old economy?
I’ve got good news and bad news about the future of the planet.
Good news first. Next year, a honking big global Earth Summit is coming our way — one with a proud heritage. Formally titled the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, the meeting is known as RIO+20 because it will come 20 years after the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. That original Earth Summit (itself 20 years after the equally important Stockholm Convention on the Environment and Human Development) gave us an embarrassment of policy riches: the Climate Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Sustainable Development Commission, the Precautionary Principle, a long and ambitious list of promises called Agenda 21, The Forest Principles, and much more. Over a hundred heads of state turned up to Rio Di Janeiro last time amidst intense global attention. This time, the reunion party is going back to Rio again on June 4-6 2012. Chances are it will all be a big deal again.
At a recent preparatory meeting in New York, the agenda for this next Earth Summit became clear. The leaders will issue a “focused political document” tackling the transition to a global “green economy” and reform of the international institutions responsible for sustainable development. This second “reform” strand could feasibly restructure everything ranging from the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) and the U.N. Development Program to the 500 different multilateral environmental treaties and agreements currently in place. These cover toxic chemicals, ocean conservation, biodiversity, desertification, climate change, ozone depletion, forest protection, and more. Given the rising trends of global temperature, hunger, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss, the existing mishmash of eco-governance is clearly failing to deliver. RIO+20 is a precious chance for decision-makers to take stock of where the world went wrong in the last 20 years and plan intelligently for the next 20. Hopefully RIO+20 will deliver a jolt of political will to the global environmental agenda, as well as a smart plan to get the planet back on track.
Or at least that’s the theory. And now we come to the bad news: Far from cooking up a plan to save the Earth, what may come out of the summit could instead be a deal to surrender the living world to a small cabal of bankers and engineers — one that will dump the promises of the first Rio summit along the way. Tensions are already rising between northern countries and southern countries over the poorly defined concept of a global “Green Economy” that will be the centerpiece of the summit.
What is a global green economy? That, of course, is the multi-trillion dollar question. We can all spell out the problems of our current polluting and unjust economy (thoughtlessly dubbed the “brown economy” by less-than race-sensitive commentators). Yet suspicion is running high that the proposed prescriptions for a “green economy” are more likely to deliver a greenwash economy or the same old, same old “greed” economy. The color-coded theory on offer goes like this: We can move from a brown economy to a green economy by investing more greenbacks in the white heat of technology and PINC (Proactive Investment in Natural Capital) including innovative market mechanisms such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degredation). Just to round off the color palette, ocean states are further arguing that the green economy also needs to be a blue economy.
Confused? The key words to focus on here are “markets” and “technology.” Just as the global climate negotiations, most recently in Cancun, have veered away from the difficult job of agreeing to slash emissions and lurched instead toward politically easy gestures on carbon trading and solar panels, so the green economy brigade would like to steer the RIO+20 summit away from addressing the root causes of our ecological crises. They would like the emphasis to be on a “forward looking” effort to establish new financial arrangements based on so-called “ecosystem services” while liberating funds for iconic “green technologies.”
Two heavyweight reports from UNEP, on “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) and a “Green Economy Report” (GER) set the tone for this plan. They argue that nature, like an industrial contractor, should be precisely measured and valued according to the natural “services” that it provides — such as water cleaning, carbon sequestration, and nitrogen cycling. Such services can then be paid for, offset, or securitized in the form of invented credits that can be traded to raise conservation money. Meanwhile new “eco-efficient” technologies can be developed and deployed increasing the value of these ecosystem services while also generating revenue. If it sounds more like a business plan than an agreement to protect the Earth that’s because business is firmly in the driving seat. The lead author of both the TEEB and GER is an investment banker on sabbatical from Deutsche Bank, and the most vocal cheerleaders are the Davos crowd of Fortune 500 companies and G8 diplomats.
Most alarmingly, some of these voices are positioning the “green economy” as an upgrade or replacement to the “outmoded” concept of “sustainable development” that was agreed on 20 years ago. They seem content to throw out Rio’s “baby” of sustainable development out for new green bathwater just as the baby reaches the age of maturity. While “sustainable development” has its problems as an approach, it at least explicitly attempted to enmesh environmental goals in larger social and economic goals such as reducing poverty and creating a just and equitable society. By contrast, the idea of a green economy is sustainable-development-lite — long on technical fixes and band-aid solutions, short on confronting the root causes of poverty, inequality, and oppression that drive environmental destruction.
At a packed side event in New York last week entitled “Whose Green Economy?,” Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Salon charged that this repackaged green capitalism was a distraction from the real issues and commitments that RIO+20 needs to address to realize sustainable development. He warned that the new forms of mercantilism and speculation being proposed could further despoil nature while entrenching existing injustices. Indigenous peoples and social justice movements who have fought against land displacement brought about by the REDD+ provisions of the recent Cancun agreement are particularly alarmed that the same commodification approach is now being proposed to extend to soils, oceans, and more. As Uruguayan activist Silvia Ribeiro points out, “In the wake of the largest financial crisis in history, the same bankers who can’t even keep their own house in order now claim they can manage the planet. Excuse us for not believing them.”
The focus on ill-defined “green technologies” is also problematic. The UNEP Green Economy report bullishly includes biomass incineration and biofuels as possible ingredients in a “green economy” — rising food prices, land grabs, and toxic air pollution aside. The report is agnostic on nuclear power and stops short of endorsing genetically modified crops as part of the green package.
Meanwhile the next suite of technological silver bullets are already being reframed as part of the green economy. Synthetic biology, which makes artificial microbes with unknown biosafety impacts, is being touted as the source of green fuels and green plastics. Nanotechnology, whose toxicity problems raise the specter of a rerun of the asbestos fiasco, is being embraced for solar panel production and water cleanup. Meanwhile geoengineering — the idea of re-engineering the entire planet with clouds of sulphur dust or dumps of iron and charcoal — could easily end up in the broad definition of “green technologies.”
If RIO+20 is not to become a handy loophole for every technological wolf to assume green clothing (and funds), governments are going to need to get specific about what is and what isn’t a “green and just” technology and to resurrect the precautionary principle first agreed at Rio 20 years ago. The green economy needs some trusted gatekeepers. One proposal, backed by several major groups at the U.N., is the establishment of a formal mechanism to evaluate new and emerging technologies — such as an International Convention for Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). Such a convention might provide an early-warning function to governments on pitfalls of technological options before they are deployed. An ICENT might have warned against backing ethanol before food prices spiked, or challenged the wisdom of a risky energy technologies long before the wellhead explodes or the tsunami hits the reactor’s cooling system. Tragically, governments agreed to a version of such a technology assessment mechanism back in Rio 20 years ago and then never delivered — an act of negligence we are paying for today in human lives, hunger, and environmental damage.
And there’s the rub: 20 years ago, governments at Rio were bold enough to lay out a set of commitments that might credibly have rescued us from some of the dire predicaments we are now in but they never fulfilled their own promises. With under 13 months to go, it’s now up to all of us in global society to demand that those promises, however belated, be fulfilled. Most importantly those promises should not be abandoned for a hollow “green economy” that amounts to a Trojan horse for ongoing destruction-as-usual. The bad news on the road to Rio is that the hijackers are already seizing the reins. The good news is that we have time to organize massive campaigns to get the Earth Summit back on course — not just for a green economy, but for a green, equitable, and just future.
Get Grist in your inbox