Putting the green economy on trial: The verdict?

Publication Date: 

Thursday, 17 November 2011 - 5:57pm


Emily Benson - Green Economy Coalition
Green Economy on Trial; the verdict

On November 15 the Green Economy Coalition (GEC) invited leading practitioners from business, economics and civil society to respond to their vision for a green economy.  We put ourselves in the dock.  We faced the music.  So what was the verdict?

From the business community the message came back loud and clear.  The prospect of a green economy needs to be one of opportunity, not threat.  Thomas Lingard (Global Advocacy Director, Unilever), commented the word ‘opportunity’ only appeared once in the entire document (whereas ‘tax’ appeared many more times).  In a similar vein, Peter Lacy (Managing Director - Sustainability Services, Accenture) stressed that the pathway to change is not littered with ‘thou shalts and thou shalt nots’. He also noted that instead of communicating a coherent and compelling vision for transformation, the Coalition had drafted a ‘laundry list’ of different asks for the UN summit next year (Rio 2012).  The response from business was clear.  If the GEC is going engage with different communities beyond civil society, including the business world, then our lexicon needs to undergo a shift and our vision needs to be persuasive.

At the other end of the panel the response from Oxfam was equally pointed.  Hannah Stoddart (Head of Economic Justice, Oxfam), commented that the Coalition’s set of policy asks contained only one mention of ‘justice’.  Her intervention provided us with a vivid story from Uganda whereby the investments of a forest plantation company, albeit well intentioned, resulted in local communities being turfed off their land by the authorities.  The response was clear. If the GEC is going to bring about its vision for a better future then social justice needs to be at its very core. 

So, our prosecutors identified two very different, perhaps contrary, needs. One to appeal to business ‘opportunity’.  The other for social ‘justice’.

Lacy and Lingard’s point was well made.  Martin Luther King did not compel a movement with a statement of ‘I have a rather difficult set of choices that you all need to make’.  Nelson Mandela did not mobilise transformation by saying ‘we face a set of very complex institutional problems’.  Obama did not win a US election with the slogan ‘No, you’re not allowed’. 

If we are going to bring about the kind of transformational change that is required, then we need vision.  That vision needs to extend beyond civil society.  It needs to be one that can harness the imagination of many communities, including the business sector.  Two decades ago, at Rio 1992, we believed that all the many problems we faced could be met by public funds.  Now we know that the scale of the challenge ahead of us requires a level of finance and innovation that is far beyond the power of the state.  The transformation to a green economy will need to provide opportunities for businesses, big and small.  Such opportunities will be generated by progressive public policy including sustainable public procurement, incentives and subsidies and innovative finance mechanisms (all of which, incidentally, are identified and described in the GEC’s Zero draft).

The shift to a green economy brings huge potential for developed and developing economies. Christian Aid’s latest report shows how a low-carbon development path in Africa would lift the continent out of energy poverty without increasing emissions; the ILO’s recent study into the labour market in developing countries has shown overall job gains compared to “business-as-usual” scenarios; UNEP’s final Green Economy Report reveals that an overall transition to a green economy would realise per capita incomes higher than under current economic models, while reducing the ecological footprint by nearly 50 per cent in 2050, as compared to business-as-usual.

However, Stoddart’s point also went to the heart of the debate. Let us not be naive. Let us learn from the past few decades. The pursuit of ‘opportunity’ has led to some devastating repercussions for society and the environment over the last few decades. The Deepwater Horizon oil-spill, the behaviour of the tobacco industry, and the causes of the 2008 financial crisis are all obvious ones that come to mind.  Business may not appreciate the language of 'thou shalts' but disregard for environmental and societal justice has prompted a number of the challenges that our planet and our societies face today. A green economy requires different business practices that account for environmental health and societal well-being as well as profit margin. (Again, these proposals are explained in the GEC’s Zero draft text). 

Furthermore, just as the industrialisation process of the 1800s witnessed societal upheaval, the scale of transformation away from a brown economy to a green economy will also place communities, particularly the poorest members of society, at risk.  This is why need to put in place social protection schemes to help support the most vulnerable in the transition to a green economy. This is why we need to invest in re-skilling and capacity building our people. (Not to labour the point, but these are also described in the GEC’s Zero draft text). 

Putting ourselves on trial has exposed some significant areas for improvement. It has demonstrated how difficult it can be to cultivate and communicate a progressive vision.  It has vividly demonstrated the benefit of different voices and input from all quarters.  Above all, it has exposed the need for much wider and much deeper debate.

The points made by all of our panellists have been taken up by the Coalition. Over the coming weeks we will be refining our asks, clarifying our thoughts, and honing our narrative.   We will be putting ourselves and our vision on trial again in a series of public debates. We invite you all to come and be part of that process.  Come and help us strengthen our positions, make them more robust, and generate a collective vision for the future. 

So, the verdict? Probation and retrial in the New Year.