Rio+20 is over and now the real work starts

The disappointing outcomes of the Rio+20 sustainable development summit last week illustrated the difficulties governments face when they seek high-level, technocratic solutions to deep-seated environmental, economic and social challenges. The green economy was held up as a panacea without confronting the dilemmas about what exactly it means and how it can be delivered.

That civil society groups felt it necessary to have a separate People’s Summit and “reinvent the world” on their own is indicative of a green-economy process that has gone awry. The key role players – civil society, governments and business interests – are not working together effectively in their home environments and this is being played out on the world stage.

Suggestions for establishing a green economy have been discussed for a while and involve a range of sectors such as renewable energy, waste and water management, urban regeneration, transport and infrastructure development. The social benefits from adopting a green economy are seen as numerous, such as providing access to electricity and water, safer travel, cheaper food, more comfortable homes and better neighbourhood surroundings.

A properly negotiated green economy has the potential to invigorate the South African economy and ­create substantial jobs where they are most needed, but it requires some tough value choices by consumers, environmentalists, government and business alike. These have to be made in particular contexts with very real financial, environmental and social constraints.

The road to the green economy will not be easy. It will require all role-players, especially dissenting voices, to be included in the arguments and heated debates about setting priorities. We will need carefully targeted public and private investments that are sensitive to specific social concerns and particular environmental constraints.

No blueprint
A veteran Vietnamese activist made an important point last week in saying that one should talk about “green economies” rather than the “green economy”. There is no blueprint for the green economy because it will require different kinds of interventions in different contexts, depending on environmental conditions, social problems and the resources available.

Several hard choices have to be made. First, environmentalists can no longer restrict the agenda to protecting biodiversity, cutting carbon emissions and consuming fewer natural resources. Green-economy initiatives must chime with the pressing needs of the poor and unemployed who cannot be expected to pay for decades of overconsumption by the affluent.   

Second, consumers will need to shift their preferences and behaviour. They may need to pay higher prices for some commodities and suffer inconveniences from other choices. Public transport is slower than travelling by car. Separating and recycling waste is not as convenient as throwing everything into landfills. Operating green buildings to save energy is more complicated than turning on the central heating. And refuse removal, electricity and water may become more expensive.

Business is likely to welcome green subsidies and other government inducements, but it will have to accept green taxes and some restrictions on harmful practices. Green-economy projects often impose higher initial costs on companies operating in competitive markets, which could threaten their competitive edge and sacrifice local jobs unless they adjust to the new realities. Protecting natural ecosystems could also mean higher-density development that is more costly in the short term.

Governments perhaps require the most robust changes of all. They cannot rely on the efficacy of market processes to bring about a green economy. The popular assumption that we will create sufficient incentives to allow markets to operate and “internalise externalities” if we price carbon and the environment correctly is overly optimistic. Consumer and business behaviour will not shift far and fast enough towards low-carbon technologies and consumption patterns without firm encouragement from the government.

More importantly, there are just too many uncertainties about the winners and losers with a laissez-faire approach to the green economy. Advanced economies, powerful corporations and well-off consumers may well find ways of adjusting to a low-carbon economy that displace the costs to developing countries and poorer households.

Fortitude needed
Unfortunately, governments have found it difficult to show the kind of fortitude needed. Consider their inability to reach agreement on something as simple as taxing aviation fuel to constrain international air travel, despite the damage it does to global warming.

Stronger government regulations and taxes to shift the costs and incentives of certain green practices also need to be investigated. It is unlikely to be achieved without active social dialogue and pressure from civil society. Refuse collection is one example of where this kind of dialogue is sorely needed. In towns and cities where less frequent refuse collection services have been imposed on citizens without consultation, there has been a political backlash and changes have been reversed.

Ultimately, no one can make the transition to a green economy on their own. Serious dialogue between governments, communities and business is needed. There is a limit to the resources governments can mobilise to invest in stimulating new green initiatives. Additional resources will need to be secured through all kinds of joint ventures, alliances and partnerships with civil society, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. Community-based environmental programmes are particularly amenable to co-operation with non-profit organisations.

Professor Ivan Turok and Dr Leanne Seeliger work at the Human Sciences Research Council

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Ivan Turok
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