Global Development Institute Blog

By Carl Death

As the 2015 Millennium Development Goals target date looms near and the successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is due to be negotiated, Dr Carl Death, senior lecturer in International Political Economy, considers the increasing focus on the green economy and breaks the concept down into four key discourses that are competing to define its meaning. He argues that it is a big idea for dramatic change but it could also reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

The politics of environment and development will be a recurring topic of international negotiations in 2014-2015. The target for the Millennium Development Goals will be reached in 2015 and they are likely to be replaced with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is also due to be negotiated by 2015, although it won’t enter into force until 2020. For these reasons many are searching for guiding concepts and frameworks for the defining challenges of the coming century: how to achieve development in ways that is environmentally safe and sustainable and socially just. Sustainable development was the ‘big idea’ of the 1990s; the 2000s was the decade of climate change and the low carbon economy; and some have suggested that the ‘green economy’ will provide a structuring paradigm for the 2010s. At the ‘Rio+20’ Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 the international community under the auspices of the United Nations promoted the green economy as one of its two main themes, and it was agreed that it was ‘one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development’.

Much like sustainable development, the concept of the green economy is usefully vague, and is invoked by different people with different agendas and worldviews. For example, some see a ‘Global Green New Deal’ as the next stage of human progress, akin to the industrial revolution, in which societies will become ‘low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive’. Others promote environmental markets and services as a new route to economic growth and higher consumption levels. Different countries have implemented green economy strategies in different ways. South Korea invested in a massive programme of ‘green’ jobs and hi-tech industries to ward off the financial crisis in 2009, comprising around 3% of GDP or $36.3 billion. South Africa has signalled an intention to cut greenhouse gas emissions, introduce a carbon tax, create ‘green jobs’ and stimulate local renewable energy industries. Yet contradictions abound in these declarations. South Africa, for example, emitted 9.2 tons of C02 emissions per capita in 2010, compared to 7.9 in the UK, and has some of the highest levels of resource consumption and social and economic inequality in the world.

In order to make sense of these diverse manifestations of the green economy, it is useful to break the concept down into four competing discourses: ‘green revolution’, ‘green transformation’, ‘green growth’, and ‘green resilience’. It is the competition between these discourses that will shape the future of the green economy over the next decade.

The oldest discourse of the ‘green economy’ is the sense in which many environmentalists in the 1960s and 1970s used it – a revolutionary transformation of economic (and hence social and political) relationships to bring them in line with natural limits to growth. This discourse has inspired a range of alternatives such as de-growth, steady-state economics, buen vivir, or prosperity without growth. These are not simply seen as necessary shifts, but rather as progressive opportunities for a better society. A ‘green economy’ is therefore something very different from our current economy, in terms of what we eat and how it is produced, the energy we use, our transport systems, and so on, and such a transition would revolutionise many aspects of contemporary society, including patriarchy, race-relations, the state and the state system, capitalism, and aspects of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition.

Green transformation, in contrast, envisages a shift in socio-economic and political systems towards social justice, equity and redistribution, but the basic elements and assumptions of modernity are to remain the same. Thus economic growth remains the driver of progress, the environment is a resource for human development, and states and the state-system are the regulators and guarantors of development. Typical policies include Keynesian strategies of public investments and fiscal stimulus, mobilised for ‘green’ ends: clean air and water and food, safe and efficient public transport, tree-planting campaigns, and so on. This is the basic idea of the ‘Green New Deal’ endorsed by the UN Environmental Programme.

The third discourse is that of green growth, where green markets are an economic opportunity. Given increasing prices of raw materials and natural resources – oil, gas, food stuffs, and land – as well as widely predicted shortages in resources like freshwater, there is money to be made in ‘going green’. Rising world populations and rapidly growing economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa also seem to present new markets, and even in older markets the niches for organic and green products are becoming increasingly commercially attractive. Carbon markets and pricing for ecosystem services create new opportunities for financial speculation, and ‘climate capitalism’ is presented as the next stage of human development. The metaphor of ‘rising tides lifting all boats’ seems profoundly apt here, but might prompt doubts about the ability of capitalist economies to weather coming climate storms in even the most sanguine free-market economists.

Finally, the fourth element of the discourse is essentially cautious. Warnings of environmental scarcity and peak oil have convinced many that alternatives need to be found in order simply to maintain the status quo. ‘Climate smart’ agriculture will be needed, and new forms of urban settlements. ‘Green resilience’ includes climate adaptation schemes, flood defences, insurance and risk indexing, disaster relief plans, and attempts to build self-sufficient local economies.

Widespread agreement on the importance of transitions to ‘a green economy’ therefore masks substantial political and economic differences. Various international negotiations – such as over the SDGs or the post-2015 climate treaty – as well as different countries and international organisations, are the sites of competing discourses. It is certainly possible that the latest ‘big idea’ of the green economy could transform our world in a manner akin to the European industrial revolution, but it could equally take forms which reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

For more on ‘The Green Economy in South Africa: Global Discourses and Local Politics’ see