Friday, 5 July 2013

How can the green transformation work? It's about more than recycling and renewable energy

By Tomoko Kunimitsu

Whether we live in a developed country or a developing country, we all live on the same planet. The increasing realisation that the global economic system is out of balance with the earth’s carrying capacity calls for a transformation to maintain the planet in a more sustainable way. As members of ‘the Spaceship Earth’, the green transformation is a matter for everyone in this generation regardless of our positionality.

MA Globalisation and Development students at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) recently held two discussions on the green transformation with Hubert Schmitz, an IDS Research Fellow who is working on this topic. This is a brief summary of those discussions which tried to make some ideas and issues around the green transformation clearer to us.

1. The green transformation in a capitalist world

In promoting so-called green industry, such as renewable energy, the win-win relation between environmental sustainability and economic profit tends to be stressed. However, this win-win relation is only possible as long as green industry remains more profitable than non-green industries, given capitalism’s emphasis on maximizing profits.

So far it is still a relatively new industry with a lot of potential for business opportunities. But what happens if society exploits these opportunities and the profitability of green industry decreases? In other words, to what extent is the green transformation in a capitalist world truly green? The quality of the greenness should always be checked in the process of the transformation, it's not just about scale.

Two key concepts for living within our planetary boundaries

In order to think about quality, the starting point could be “what does the green transformation mean exactly?”

Two ideas are important to make the world work within its planetary boundaries
  • changing our lifestyle (specifically around consumption) 
  • circulating economy
Firstly, we need to change our lifestyle by consuming more environmentally-friendly and sustainable products. The green industry has a role to play in this. For example, renewable energy provides an alternative form of energy consumption. This could be a first step in the transformation though we also may also need to consume less in a long run.

Secondly, the circulation of production, consumption and recycling may require a new system of maintaining an economy by rethinking the connection between producers and consumers. In fact, we can learn from the informal economy in developing communities which often has an effective circulation system such as collecting and recycling trash. Formalised economies tend to lose such a voluntary system and compensate by regulations and public services, but these can be ineffective and often experience failures.

However, these ideas are not being implemented at scale, or they are misused or misinterpreted.

Challenges facing different approaches to green transformation

“Recycling” by importing old fridges and air conditioners containing chlorofluorocarbons - chemicals which damage the ozone layer - into Africa contradicts the primary objective around regulating these products (i.e. that these goods are deemed to be pollutants negates the benefit of them being recycled). In another example, solar panels, while providing renewable energy, can also be a new source for chemical pollution as they contain several environmentally toxic materials.

Additionally, it will be harder for some resource-rich developing countries to achieve the transformation since their economies are hugely dependant on the non-green resource sector. For example, in Angola, the oil sector accounts for nearly 80% of government revenue, 90% of exports and 47% of GDP.

In a capitalist world, the green transformation links to incentives for actors in the market – industries, government and consumers. It also has a risk of over-reliance on the market system where the need for environmental sustainability is just one of many factors that influence market decisions. It seems to be an issue of balance between what they do (performance) and why they do it (motivation).

2. Small scale and big scale expansion in the renewable energy industry

Approaches for the green transformation in the form of generating and consuming renewable energy have been taking place on various scales, from community-based projects to transnational ones.

Small-scale attempts have generally focused on providing access to electricity in remote areas in developing countries. According to the Alliances for Rural Electrification, small and medium wind turbines (SMWT) offer facilities that are relatively easy to maintain; are highly adaptable with other existing energy sources (e.g. diesel); and provide an opportunity for technology transfer and improving energy sustainability. Although still faced with financing and quality standards problems, SMWT have been introduced in many places including China, Indonesia, Madagascar and Namibia to provide energy within the community.

On the other hand, big-scale projects tend to separate energy production from consumption. The Desertec project – a project generating energy in North Africa for potential consumption in Europe – is an example of this. While the project would generate additional income by selling energy to Europe, energy production for consumption beyond the immediate locality could raise a new challenge for democracy and social justice in the region, with an issue of ownership of energy.

Does the expansion of a renewable energy sector contribute to the green transformation?

These different scales for expanding the renewable energy sector provide some opportunities for exploring key questions:
  • What is the relation between scale economies and efficiency in renewable energy? 
  • Does the expanding renewable energy sector really mean a “shift” to the green energy? Or is it just complementary to the existing non-green energy?
Different actors will have different priorities – job creation, access to electricity, reducing carbon emissions, etc. It is the politics of their interests that influence the direction and scales of renewable energy industry.

After these discussions, our questions for the green transformation are about its effectiveness – how it can work in relation to the conventional way of sustaining economy, with its aim of bringing a transition in our lifestyle? The green transformation may not always be based on the win-win relationship, but a more interactive process between market, governments, companies and individuals will be critical for the true transformation.

Tomoko Kunimitsu is undertaking an MA in Globalisation and Development at the Institute of Development Studies.  

Previous Globalisation and Development blog posts on the green transformation:


EmilieW said...

Hi Tomoko,

It's not looking good for Desertech -

More evidence that green transformation is far from plain sailing and that we should be keeping a close eye on these large-scale projects.


Hubert Schmitz said...

Thank you for reflecting on our discussions and raising all these questions. You are right, recycling and green energy are not enough in themselves. The issue is whether these advances trigger further actions. For example, will the business people and workers in the renewable energy industry strengthen the political pressures for further green public policies? In turn, will the investors in the brown sectors get ‘cold feet’, such that they fear sitting on ‘stranded assets’ and divest from the high carbon sectors. These kind of dynamics of mutually reinforcing changes are needed to bring about the green transformation.

gauri said...

Thank you Tomoko, for this interesting article. I agree with Hubert when he says whether these advances trigger further action, all along the spectrum right from the policy end to the consumer end.
A lot of small and medium enterprises are entering the Renewable Energy (RE) space to provide Basic Need Functions for the Bottom of the Pyramid in developing countries,through innovative product/services and delivery mechanisms to the Consumer, particularly to the off grid village communities.
What would be interesting and worth studying is how the off-take of demand for RE at the BOP consumer level is supported with a consumer awareness and education on the need of RE and that it is not a mere substitution for brown energy. This might ensure better scalability and quality of green and clean energy available in the market.


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