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Pushing back against the false ‘Green Economy’…fighting for the soul of Rio

I am writing you from the 19th session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development meetings in New York.

This week we had a very successful event called ‘The Right Green Economy’, where the Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project joined Food and Water Watch, UNANIMA International, International Presentation Association and Why Hunger spoke out against something very dangerous that we all need to push back against. I wanted to share some thoughts with you about the importance of this issue.

Despite a nice sounding name, what is being promoted as the Green Economy would greatly harm both the environment and people because of deep neo-liberal pricing and market-based flaws.

Officially, UNEP has developed a working definition of a Green Economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.  This sounds very reasonable and to be fair, there are some good parts to the initiative, along with some nice sounding packaging, but if concerned individuals and organizations do not come together quickly to challenge the false Green Economy, it will become a Trojan Horse to all global environmental initiatives doing immeasurable damage to our planet and people.

We can all agree for the need to transition to a Green Economy from our Brown Economy; to remove subsidies for dirty industries and invest in clean technology; to reduce our ecological footprint; to implement a Green New Deal for our common future…it all sounds very nice but even against the positives, the negatives outweigh any gains. The whole scheme is also based on promising massive growth which is a major part of the problem. We have to come to terms that we cannot keep growing our economy without continuing to harm the planet. This is why the concept of ‘living well’ needs to be central to our progress, a concept at the core of the efforts on harmony with nature.

In 1992, Rio was built upon principles of sustainable development. Today this foundation is under threat as a small group of powerful countries led by the G8 are trying to change the core of the UN’s environmental agenda by inserting the Green Economy as the heart of Rio+20. The Green Economy started to be promoted after the 2008 global financial crisis. At the Pittsburgh G8 meeting it was decided that part of the reason for the crisis was that we were not valuing nature properly. Therefore, by promoting payments for ecological services, markets and pricing, we could have avoided the global meltdown.

Whether the G8 actually believe this or are using the crisis to promote another agenda is immaterial, this fits in very well with past ideology and in a more chaotic world spurred on by Climate Change, corporations and states are scrambling to ensure they have access to critical resources. Markets and pricing are fundamental to this ideology, but until now, they have not found a way to implement them on a broad scale. The Green Economy seems to be that attempt to put a price tag on all nature.

They even invoke the tragedy of the commons in their documents, which has long been the tip of the spear for those who promote privatisation of the Commons. Now over 40 years old and long ago debunked, the tragedy of the commons has been proven to be the tragedy of unmanaged commons. Privatisation has proven, beyond any doubt, that it engenders it own form of hell that is far worse and virtually permanent. Once we privatise and implement property rights, it becomes very difficult if not impossible for the state to manage, protect or steward our water, air, forests etc. Instead, the market makes its own choices and communities and governments are forced to try and keep up, only mitigating the worst effects.

I cannot go into all the details here, but these are the dangers we are facing with the Green Economy. Some examples however, include REDD+ being heavily promoted by the Green Economy in relation to forests and much has been written against REDD+.

With reference to water, here are a couple of excerpts…

“Progress towards the pursuit of green objectives can be accelerated through the redesign of governance arrangements, the improved specification of property rights, the adoption of policies that reflect the full costs of use including the costs of adverse impacts on the environment, and through improved regulation. Use is kept within sustainable limits.”

Implementing this vision may result in less water use, but because of a massive shift away from poor people having access to water. Full cost pricing, property rights which lead to markets and governance structures that support these mechanisms will be very destructive, even if you keep water use within sustainable limits. I would even suggest that the sustainable limits would become flexible if you implemented this systems as capital is good at finding ways around regulations and limits.

The Green Economy is even clear about what is influencing policy around water, and whom… below is a footnote from the paper on water…

The recommendations developed in this chapter have been significantly influenced by the:

  • Development of the Dublin principles in 1992 which observes that “Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good” (Global Water Partnership 1992);
  • Camdessus Report on financing water infrastructure that called for drastic improvements in accountability, transparency and capacity-building in the public utility sector coupled with a doubling of funding for the sector (Winpenny 2003);

Basing policy on water as an economic good and on a report by the former head of the International Monetary Fund and a strong promoter of water commodification and privatisation does not inspire confidence in the Green Economy.

Added to this is that the World Bank, World Water Council and the World Trade Organization are also leading supporters and are working with the help of some within the UN itself. UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, has been the lead proponent of this inside the UN, under the leadership of their articulate Executive Director, Achim Steiner. UNEP has also launched the Green Economy Initiative headed by Pavan Sukhdev, and executive on secondment from Deutsche Bank.

As you can see, there are some very powerful states, corporate interests and elements within the UN itself which are behind the Green Economy. Unfortunately, this has momentum At earlier preparatory meetings the ‘Green Economy’ was included in the official Rio+20 negotiations, but without any real discussion of what the Green Economy even was. It was promoted vigorously and it is difficult to be against the Green Economy if the details are not available, so states agreed.

We are now seeing that despite some good initiatives, there is much to be concerned about. The good news is that the G77, with Bolivia and others taking the lead, are pushing back. But more needs to be done and social movements and civil society must step forward to also add their voice, before it is too late. Already, other groups are aligning with the Green Economy, seemingly without knowing the most dangerous aspects, or wilfully trying to implement this market-based vision of the environment.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary since the historic Rio Earth Summit. In those 20 years the world has changed dramatically and the environmental crises that were originally on the Rio agenda have become far more acute. There is much evidence that rather than taking these challenges more seriously, states are taking less initiative and responsibility for implementing positive solutions to climate change, the global water crisis, desertification, biodiversity etc.

The evidence from Copenhagen and Cancun is very depressing, with states diminishing their commitments on climate change and even then making those lesser commitments non-binding. This is happening at a time when the evidence is irrefutable and the chaos is already enveloping many parts of the planet.

Next June, from the 4th to the 6th, the world will again convene in Rio and both review what has happened in the past 20 years and look forward towards what kind of future we will leave for coming generations. We must write a strong next chapter if we want a sustainable, just future. Despite our certain knowledge that we need a Green Economy, this is not the right Green Economy for people and nature.

Anil Naidoo, UN, New York City, May, 5, 2011