Thursday, July 28, 2011

Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

by Yeb Sano

UNEP has come out with a report entitled "Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication". I thank the UNEP for this report, as it gives us a better picture of what a green economy is, and how it can provide the impetus for sustainable development as envisioned in Rio almost 20 years ago. 

At the onset, I would say that there is little I can argue with the ideals of green economy, as the report explains it to be. My reflection on the report would mainly revolve around three Cs – which coincidentally is the acronym of the Climate Change Commission. The first C is concept. The 2nd C is content. And the 3rd C is context. 


It is often said by many that the more names you have for something or someone, the more intimate your relationship is with that something or someone. I’m not talking about calling your wife mistakenly by another girl’s name. Here in the Philippines, in the Filipino language, we have many names for typhoons or storms – bagyo, unos, sigwa. But I also refer to the very personal way we refer to typhoons, as Ondoy has become so personified in a huge way. In the same sense, we have different names for rice corresponding to the different stages in its life-cycle – from the tillers and panicles up to the moment it reaches your dinner plate and we even have a name for overcooked rice, over-watered rice, etc. And we know that this holds true also for other cultures that have intimate relationships with rice. It is interesting though to note that we vaguely have an equivalent word in Filipino for the term “disaster”. 

Now, today, we find ourselves looking at a concept called “Green Economy”. I looked at Google Trends and it seems that ‘green economy’ is barely a 2-year old term in terms of search volume on Google.

Well, try to Google the term ‘green economy’ and yes, the first thing in the search results would be UNEP’s green economy web page. On Google Trends, it would be worth noting that the search volume for the term ‘sustainable development’ has been 148 times more than ‘green economy’. Nonetheless, Google Trends also show that the search volume for ‘sustainable development’ has been in constant decline since 2004. From about twice the average in 2004, it is now down to about 75% of the average. In contrast, the term ‘green economy’ started getting significant search traffic only in 2010 and is steadily increasing, with peaks correlated with the news item whose headline says “$40 billion needed to ensure transition to green economy:UN” and notably a significant peak in search volume traffic correlated with the headline “Green economy talks in South Africa focus on low-carbon solutions”. Not surprisingly, in the ranking of countries that have searched ‘green economy’ on Google, South Africa tops the list, but Italy comes in at second and Italy also has been consistently ranked 1st monthly except for that 2nd quarter of 2010 where South Africa dominated. Other countries searching ‘green economy’ on Google include Ireland, Canada, India, USA, Australia, Switzerland, UK, Germany. 

Those of us who have closely followed the UNEP Governing Council meeting in Naroibi early this year would have hardly failed to notice the strong promotion of ‘green economy’, especially with the release of the synthesis report on Green Economy. The Report calls for nothing less than a radical way in pursuing sustainable development. It calls for a revolution in how we run the global economy, towards a sustainable development pathway, and eradicating poverty. I personally like radical and revolution. This alone already merits attention. And I guess that’s why there's a buzz about the concept. And we all know there’s been a broad range of reactions and views regarding the concept of ‘green economy’ and whether it is a useful way of framing policy discussions and policy making to promote sustainable development, especially in the light of the 20 years after Rio and towards Rio+20. 

The main challenge about the concept of ‘green economy’ is in the word ‘green’ itself. We all know that there are dozens, if not hundreds of shades of ‘green’. 

We all know about the triple bottomline of sustainable development: economic, environmental and social. I need not elaborate. The never-ending debates on sustainability are about the ever-contradicting relationships among these three pillars of sustainable development. Yes, often we see these relationships in conflict and in contradiction. I need not elaborate. We have time and again stressed the need for integration of economic, environmental and social dimensions. We have developed lots of tools in our futile attempts to integrate. And in practice, however, we find ourselves trying to harmonize/ address conflicts instead of integrating. 

Now, in this overwhelming task of integration, this is where the concept of green economy may be very useful. The definitions of green economy may certainly vary, but if we agree on one attribute of a green economy, i.e. seeking growth from pro-poor environmental investment, the concept can help change the focus of the debate from reconciling to synergizing the relationships.

The term ‘green economy’ is only useful if it deals with more than production. It must address demand side in a profound way. It will have to deal with issues on scale, throughput, distribution of wealth. We have seen that growth doesn’t have that trickle-down effect that addresses poverty.

 You see, the report indeed makes a compelling “economic and social case for investing two per cent of global GDP in greening ten central sectors of the economy in order to shift development and unleash public and private capital flows onto a low-carbon, resource-efficient path.” In fact, also in the context of the adverse impacts of climate change, and this has been demonstrated in the Stern Report, that delaying action on climate change will make it more costly to address the problem later on.

I would, in fact, assert that the concept of a ‘green economy’ would be very useful in framing policy discussions and policymaking to promote sustainable development, especially in the light of the 20 years after Rio. 

Today we deal with a tremendous amount of and overwhelming kinds of change. Growth is change. Poverty is change. Environmental decay or improvement are change. Growing inequity is change. When we pursue sustainability, it is not just about growth. We have to look at the demand side of things. We deal with a lot of inevitabilities but also a lot of uncertainties. We live in a world where things don’t happen in a single dimension. It would be good if we could actually turn back the hands of time – incidentally, the face of a clock is only two-dimensional. Imagine turning back the hands of time in 4 or even just 3 dimensions. It would be complex. But at the risk of being starkly reductionistic, let me liken change with a Rubik’s cube. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to figure out a Rubik’s cube. And for me, the change we see in the world today is at the least like a Rubik’s cube – but even more. There are a lot of things that require re-engineering, or turning back the resource clock. It is not as if the world will have enough forever. Our resource base is dwindling. It will require more than a one-dimensional or even two-dimensional turning back of the clock. 


The concept of green economy recognizes the value of and investing in natural capital. It is clear that the concept pushes for the recognition of the social and economic value of the environment; it talks about the positive externalities that prove indispensable in fulfilling basic human needs. I would think that it would also be important to recognize the value of non-use or non-exploitation of resources, as the Commission is strongly advocating now, including a throughtful analysis of opportunity costs and how to equitably finance such costs.

Another important positive reflection on the content is that the concept highlights the importance of the reflection of ecological values in economic pricing, and endeavoring to ensure that such values accrue to equitable access to resources and promote pro-poor development. 

And quite impressively, the green economy concept talks about REFORMS and TRANSFORMATION in the global economic paradigm. I am glad to note that in the UNEP Report, among the enabling conditions for green economy is a robust regulatory mechanism. A regulatory mechanism plays a very essential if not fundamental role especailly in the use of markets and market mechanisms. Of course, this is a discussion that has had long and difficult debates on. Many stakeholders contend that the environmental crisis, both at the planetary and local scales, is a manifestation of the so-called ‘market failure’; it is of course a broadly recognized assertion that markets left to itself would lead to unabated exploitation of resources. As one saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he will be fed; teach a man how to fish and he will feed himself;” give a man a fishing business essentially for profit and he will overfish the oceans.” To borrow the words of Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

On the other hand, we also see risks, especially if ‘green economy’ is pursued out of context – if it is pursued away from the original ideals of Rio. Among these are the starkly reductionist and simplistic view of how ‘green economy’ may be defined or operationalized in a linear manner, and without the triple bottomline as a basic precept. It is also fatal to treat ‘green economy’ as a mere plug-and-play software that can be applied to all countries without taking into account common but differentiated responsibilities. Another concern is the emerging issue on trade protectionism as a result of the misuse of the concept of the green economy. Lastly, another concern especially of the Philippines is that this new paradigm might be used as a conditionality for aid, or for debt scheduling. 

But all of these point to an important task for us – to ensure that we have the right definition of green development and the right context.


The Green Economy concept that we are now discussing must also be specific to the very framework within which we are discussing it. Without doubt, this context is the Rio + 20 process, which we all know is a follow up to Rio in 1992. In my view, therefore, the ‘green economy’ concept should not be treated as an issue that has broad latitude in terms of definition. Its definition must be derived from and rooted in the objectives, spirit, principles and operationalization of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, and especially the Rio Principles and Agenda 21,  supplemented as well by the Johannesburg / Rio + 10 process.
On the issue of climate change, the Philippines should send a strong message about the problem with the extensive use of markets in solving the climate crisis. While we welcome innovation and the role of markets in arriving at any international regime to stabilize GHG concentrations, we should articulate the principle that there is no silver bullet, there is no magic key that will allow a relatively small number of people to pretend that everything is alright and go back watching TV and driving SUVs. Solving climate change requires the pursuit of an equitable, just, and fair society. Climate Change is not just an environmental issue. It is very much a social, economic, and political issue. Quick-fixes will never address these critical issues because the struggle against climate change has to be part of the larger fight for a more just, democratic and equitable world. 

A Green Economy, a revolutionized Ecology of Commerce, in a form that is faithful to equitable sustainable development for all, one that truly addresses root causes of poverty and ecological decay, can very well be what we need. As the cliché goes, a rose by any other names smells as sweet. But sustainable development going by any other name demands a more thorough definition, a more careful reflection. After all, we are trooping to Rio next year not to party and celebrate success, but in fact, in a sobering way, reflect on the lessons (and failures) we have learned. It would have been terrific if we all went to Rio to party. But the state of the planet and the state of human development affords us otherwise. 

But all is not lost. As Archimedes once said, ‘with a lever long enough, I can move the world.” In this case, our collective commitment is the lever and if it is long enough, we can move the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment