Principles for a Green Economy

Henrik Selin, Guest Blogger

The organizing of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is just over a year away, scheduled for June 4-6, 2012. The conference preparations are fast under way, focusing on “a green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” and the “institutional framework for sustainable development.”

Hopefully – but definitely not a given – UNCSD can help accelerate progress where a long line of earlier conferences and other major political efforts have come up embarrassingly short, moving from grand rhetoric to actual change. It is vital to recognize that this is not just an exercise in politics, but of critical importance to people all over the world as well as future generations.

As an intellectual contribution to the UNCSD, the Boston University Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future convened a green economy task force of experts from academia, government and civil society. This resulted in the report “Beyond Rio+20: Governance for a Green Economy.” Drawing from the task force discussions and report, my co-convener, Adil Najam, and I formulated a few suggestions for thinking constructively around key green economy issues:

One: Think boldly and move incrementally. The enormity of the sustainable development challenge calls for ambitious thinking, but this should not paralyze action just because big change is difficult to achieve. There is a need for “radical incrementalism.” This involves identifying the strategic direction of change, recognizing and strengthening those elements within the existing institutional architecture that do work, and implementing measured and pragmatic shifts in those elements that need change.

Two: Take economic policy seriously. A transition to a green economy needs to involve fundamental changes to both macro-economic and micro-economic conditions and institutions. Business as usual with respect to economic policy is not a viable alternative to achieve sustainable development. A central challenge is not only to think creatively about economic policy, but also to engage international economic institutions and make environmental considerations central to global economic decision-making.

Three: Recognize what is working and what is not working. Current organizations, policies and practices must be subject to critical evaluation and changed if they stand in the way of the realization of a green economy. Furthermore, activities and regulations across organizations, states and issue areas must be better coordinated. Policy goals should be formulated clearly and followed by monitoring and reporting. There should also be actual consequences for failing to meet agreed-upon goals and targets.

Four: Make implementation the focus. The global political system remains too focused on negotiation, but a functional green economy will require societies shifting attention much more towards implementation. This must involve much better engagement of public, private and civil society actors who are closer to implementation, including at domestic levels. This will require global multilevel governance from major intergovernmental forums down to town halls and households.

Five: The state remains central but non-state actors have to be better accommodated. A focus on green economic issues highlights the importance of markets and consumers, but governments will remain central. It is not so much a question of state responsibility being replaced by others, but rather state responsibility evolving to work in concert with non-state actors. A green economy must be supported by governments, markets and civil society.

Six: Put equity at the center. A green economy must have at its core a strong focus on the well-being of people – of all people, everywhere – across present and future generations. That essential idea puts the notion of equity – intra- as well as inter-generational equity – at the very center of the green economy enterprise. Without a doubt, a deep commitment to issues of fairness and social justice must be central to the green economy transformation and development.

Both the number of people who still live in abject poverty and the rapid increase in the number of people who engage in high-consumption lifestyles raise crucial challenges for change. Using UNCSD as a springboard, government officials and non-state actors should seek to craft a global new deal for sustainable development; one that can finally help bridge the global North-South divide by tackling poverty as well as over-consumption, environmental degradation as well as social justice, and greenness of the economy along with sustainable livelihoods.

The ideas coming out of the Pardee Center task force have been presented at several international forums, including recently at the second UNCSD preparatory committee meeting in New York. Of course, versions of many green economy ideas, including several of those discussed in the report, have been debated for decades. And they will continue to be debated, as they should. It has been said many times before, but UNCSD can hopefully inspire real action this time: much more aggressive policy change for sustainable development is desperately needed.

Henrik Selin is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University, Fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-Range Future, and Visiting Scholar at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

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