Friday, 21 March 2014

Is 'going green' enough?

This week, as the RIO+ hosted an event in partnership with the Institute for Development Studies in the UK and the STEPS Centre on Green Transformations in the BRICS and what this may mean for developing Africa, it was hard to avoid the bigger question of 'is greening itself enough?”

There is no doubt that the green economy as a paradigm is picking up pace, as more and more countries undertake scoping assessments, declare green intentions through zero or low-carbon targets, pledge to make development greener or simply explore the opportunities for cleaner development and business opportunity through renewable energy.

According to all of the mainstream green thinking, which is largely economic, greening is the key for low-income countries, particularly for energy.

This is often seen as a necessary part of the revolution with mixed views on whether green is enough or inclusivity is also important. Most approaches recognise – at least in their rhetoric – the need to not only green the economy but also address poverty, however the latter seem to follow a trickle-down approach.

Current patterns of global resource use do not match our declarations for more sustainable development (see Box below) and bridging this gap will require radical reforms and a 'strong inclusivity approach' as Stephen Spratt calls it, i.e. the kind of approach that ensures that the poor do not just benefit but that they benefit more than other groups.

How much can greening facilitate changing the way we use resources and also who has access to them?

Last week, at an international workshop hosted by the German Development Institute (GDI) (PDF), similar debates arose. Some felt that extreme poverty had more political cachet while others insisted tackling inequality was not even a choice but a must.

At the country level this means, in part, moving from 70% reliance on coal and other forms of energy production to a significant change of renewables in the energy mix while reducing income and other forms of poverty at the same time. Amongst the BRICS, there are goals to make renewables more than 40% of energy generated.

Theoretically, this should be good for development. It is too soon to tell though if this will be true.

Rural and urban disparities on access to resources as well as differences between the poor and non-poor on access to basic services are still scandalous and new energy models still tend to use the same production and distribution models: concentrated, based on long value chains where limited overall benefits go to small farmers or small producers, and sometimes displacing many to meet the needs of others.

If we achieve green energy goals while failing to narrow the energy poverty gap or by creating new forms of inequality, is this still green transformation?

In a paper with RIO+ Deputy Director, Layla Saad, she and I basically say no, it should not be seen as such.

We found that a green agenda needs to do more than diversify the economic base and reduce emissions. By implication, green energy, whether in the form of bio-fuels or hydropower, would also need to 'ensure that the deep-rooted social, and to some degree environmental questions of our times are not left unanswered' and 'should not continue to be rooted in the lopsided motivations and unequal structures of traditional economic models that benefit the few and do little to quell the demands for equity and justice of those who have been consistently excluded'.

We also found that the green agenda in the BRICS and elsewhere is not yet providing enough big-sized answers to big fundamental problems, including how people who depend on nature for their subsistence are going to benefit from models that still prioritise money and growth, most of which is likely to be concentrated in the hands of big business, governments and the wealthy living in urban centres.

The BRICS themselves have taken varied approaches on green energy, particularly where the green and inclusion (social) agendas meet more clearly. 

India and Brazil have invested in biofuel and bio-energy options which have targeted or sought to engage small holder farmers (PDF), linking them to more secure income streams and to markets, with differing levels of success. In South Africa and China, the energy mix has been diversified differently through evolving combinations of hydro-electric, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind. With China in the lead, reportedly, on clean energy finance and discussions on a BRICS Bank still active, there is significant opportunity for them, as first movers and the drivers of a global green agenda, to not only show how to go green but how to do it more equitably and how this can be done for both the short and the long-term.

A sustainability approach, I hope, would also promote:
  • energy (with water security and sanitation access) as foundational elements
  • education, health and jobs as pillars and stabilisers; and
  • sustainable consumption and production as well as governance as key conditions.
Leisa Perch is Policy Specialist at the Rio+20 World Centre for Sustainable Development.


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