Green wish or green wash?

The difficult transition from “greening” urbanisation to an integrated green economy

According to media reports and unofficial briefings the UN has finally given up on a credible, binding global climate deal on carbon reductions ever happening. Commentators are saying the North and South will never be able to agree on common ground. Politicians do not have the appetite to think long-term anyway, and to make matters worse the world recession has given professional sceptics everywhere a wonderful excuse not to make a difficult decision.

It would appear, however, that all hope is not lost. The UN is already making manoeuvres with its “Plan B” – the green economy.

A round of applause please for those UN folk; they do not give up on a good idea easily. The thinking here is that by focusing on close-to-home, populist issues – like growth, jobs and skills arising from building a new generation of electric vehicles – politicians and the general public will warm (no pun intended) to the idea of taking climate action. In short, economic development is a good-news story, asking voters to pay more for the gasoline in their cars is a bad-news story. One only needs to look at the interest that China’s new 5-year plan aroused recently to see this in action: a result of its focus on low- or zero-carbon industries.

So is this a viable alternative or a regressive step by the UN?

The answer is “yes”. Not wishing to confuse you, what I mean by this is that if we get the working definition right, it could be a game changer. If we fail to put in place the appropriate governance arrangements, however, it could make matters much worse.

Starting with a clear, agreed, commonly used definition may seem an academic point; yet, for me, it is crucial to it working at all. Yes, it must be about uncoupling growth in wealth from growth in emissions; but more than this, it needs to be about shared prosperity: that if there are to be winners and losers as a result of the transition, then it should not be the poor or the global South that fails to benefit. There is work already afoot from various organisations like the World Future Council and collaborators to come up with useful ideas on such a definition, but hopefully this is the beginning of the conversation and not the end, as we need the discussion to be led from or with Southern partners.

Turning now to governance, it is vital that appropriate local and national governance arrangements by the OECD and others are put in place to hold any firms or governments accountable for the plethora of new public–private partnerships being established to develop major urban infrastructure (rapid transport, smart grids) or special trading zones (wind or solar industrial parks) and to ensure that there is no cynical stripping of community assets or green patents. Especially so as public spending shortfalls, owing to the global recession, may weaken the negotiating power of our world city mayors and leaders.

The Earth Summit 2012 – the Rio+20 anniversary – is a legitimate and timely forum to begin to craft a better understanding of both these issues, given it will bring together best minds from local government, industry and NGOs. But only if the two issues are seen to work in tandem will be they become critical to climate resilience. Let the big debate begin.


Philip Monaghan

Strategist and change manager

Greenleaf Author

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Philip has recently published Sustainability in Austerity, written to provide local leaders with a lifebelt in these turbulent times.

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