Rio Earth Summit 2012: Anything less than visionary action from our world leaders is greenwashing

Knowledge brokering21 May 2010Luke Upchurch

Let’s get one thing straight: the “Green Economy” is not a buzz word, nor a sound bite, nor the nom du jour. It is not a distraction to the discussions on sustainable development – it fundamentally underpins sustainable development.

While some may rightly argue that the UN’s focus on the Green Economy here at United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) Prepcom 1 does not mean government delegates necessarily understand or support the concept, we have seen some genuine attempts by some countries and UN bodies to engage with the issue. The issue now needs to be advanced in a way that recognises the fundamental flaws in our economic system that have led to the crises we are experiencing today. As the NGO statement to the negotiations put it today “anything less is just greenwash”.

So what does Green Economy mean? And what can it achieve? One group that is trying to put workable ideas and tangible solutions on the table is the Green Economy Coalition (GEC).

The GEC brings together environment, development, trade union, consumer and business sectors, North and South committed to a common cause: accelerating a transition to a new green inclusive economy. Leading members of the GEC are here in New York to launch Green, fair and productive: How the 2012 Rio Conference can move the world towards sustainability. It provides an explanation of the practical actions needed to tackle these shared concerns.

The GEC argues that in the current global economic framework, perverse incentives, weak legislation and poor labour standards have not only neutralised many potential benefits of globalisation, but have accelerated negative impacts on the environment, workers, consumers and economic stability. While global poverty has become entrenched, unsustainable consumption has increased.

These problems are complex and widespread, but the GEC believes real solutions exist and that Rio 2012 offers a precious opportunity for world leaders to turn around the failed approaches of the recent past.

By focusing on accountability, national dialogue, the transformation of current governing systems, and a collective effort to learn from what actually works, the GEC believes Rio 2012 can put us on a path towards the new economic paradigm needed to finally achieve the goals of Rio 1992.

At the 18 May launch of Green, fair and productive at the UN in New York, Tom Bigg of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED, the secretariat of the GEC) laid out the shared vision of the Coalition: “ A resilient economy that provides a better quality of life for all within the ecological limits of one planet.” A clear goal, made only more compelling by the range of partners in the coalition; represented on the panel by leaders from the Global South, the consumer movement and trade unions.

Shrashtant Patara of Development Alternatives in India explained how the GEC principles were set to become practice through the Coalition’s focus on national dialogue as a catalyst for transformation. Patara stressed the importance of this aspect, as without national policy change the objectives of the GEC would remain above the political and legislative arenas in which they needed to work. These include national awareness raising activities and a focus on ‘roadmapping’ the changes needed. Embedded in this process is a condition to share these experiences with other countries, a key part of the GEC national dialogue vision.

Consumers International’s Bjarne Pedersen outlined the coalition’s specific asks, emphasising the importance of addressing the demand-side of the problems we face. This included a ‘sharper focus’ on corporate accountability and using Rio 2012 as a platform for further formalising standards for sustainable corporate behaviour. Pedersen also highlighted some of the critical steps: bold political leadership, regulating industry to better protect and serve consumer protection and labour rights, an end to GDP as the main benchmark measurement of progress, and an internalisation of the real costs of goods and services so sustainable lifestyle choices become the mainstream.

And Anabella Rosemberg of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) explained how green and decent jobs are a real opportunity in the transition towards a more sustainable society, but that simply developing new sectors will not be enough: we need to speed up our efforts to green all our economic sectors. The GEC stresses that a “just transition” needs investments, education and training, social protection and dialogue and local diversification strategies.

The Green Economy Coalition has managed to fuse a myriad of approaches into a coherent set of shared concerns. The focus on increasing action and accountability stands in marked contrast to the difficulty in achieving change through current negotiating frameworks – a point recognised by several participants at the event. Respondents from the Danish, Brazilian governments, the ILO and UNEP, UNDP also welcomed the creation of the Coalition and its plans over the next two year.

The GEC is providing bold and specific details for change. Wholesale transformation of financial regulation, an end to short-term incentives, and a phasing out of fossil fuelled, consumption-based growth are approaches that can put us on a path towards the new green economic paradigm that the vast majority of the world knows we need. This is not token tinkering around the edges, not another set of conditions forced on the Global South, and not greenwash. Governments would do well to take note.