Greed dons a green mask

Henk Manschot, a professor of ethics and sustainable development at the Kosmopolis Institute in the Netherlands, shocked a global gathering at a conference in the Hague late last year when he revealed how ‘global footprint’ increases as people move up the human development index. As people consume resources to go up on the index, their ecological footprint stretches on additional hectares of land on the planet. ‘If the resource poor billion plus were to gain improved access to basic services such as health, education and portable water, the planet will run out of its hectares,’ warned Manschot.

The warning is imminent although there is no international consensus on how to reach out to the deprived billions. While global food security has yet to be achieved, the outlook for freshwater scarcity and improved sanitation looks bleak. Collectively, these crises are severely impacting the possibility of sustaining prosperity to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for reducing extreme poverty. Top it with growing fossil fuel and energy demand and the cup of woes spillth over like a never-before tsunami of unprecedented nature. The signs are ominous!

Forty years since Stockholm and 20 years following the Rio Summit, the world has slipped backwards on its race to alleviate poverty and on its efforts to reverse the ecological decline. Conversely, obsession with capitalist model of development has acerbated social instability, economic insecurity and job losses. While some of the biggest western-style economies are dragging the global economy with their sovereign debt dramas, the developing world’s obsession with economic growth is leading to deepening of the ecological crises.

To pull the planet from the current mess, world leaders will get back to the drawing board yet again. Knowing well that none of their previous commitments to sustainable development have worked, the congregation at Rio in June 2012 will carve out a new global agenda for survival of mankind. Though global climate negotiations have already hit a road block, the leaders are taking a detour to charter a ‘green economy’ pathway aimed at getting the planet back on track. While ‘green’ as a colour seems promisingly soothing, its contents are fuzzy and somewhat contentious.   

In its simplest expression, a green economy is low carbon, resource efficient, and  socially inclusive. In a green economy, growth in income and employment should be driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent  the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The crucial question remains: isn’t ‘green economy’ pathway more appropriate for the debt-ridden western economies that have the onus of generating more jobs for their disgruntled youth? 

‘Greed economy’

Why is the developed world, that is obsessed with the idea of ‘greed economy,’ thrusting its new capitalist variant - green economy — on the growing economies? Is it a calculated move to pin down the growing differences between the north and the south with a green business model? If fine print on two major studies, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and Green Economy Report (GEC), commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is anything to go by, it is a new way of measuring and valuing natural resources. Reportedly drafted by an investment banker on sabbatical from Deustsche Bank, these reports have defined the contours of a green economy.   

Providing precise measuring and valuing techniques, the reports attach a price tag to all ecosystem services from agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors such that these can be traded in  the emerging green markets. On offer on other shelves would be eco-efficient technologies that the developed world will barter in exchange for carbon credits that will accrue from such transactions. 

 It has been estimated that transition to green prescription will cost the global economy an average annual investment of no less than US$ 1.3 trillion. How will such an investment ever get made? One would doubt if the proposed green prescriptions will deliver a greenwash on the old ‘greed economy’ by innovative market mechanisms that will trade emissions for carbon credits and green technologies. Developing countries are already being lured into such a system, as the Rio+20 summit prepares itself to firm up new institutional mechanisms for a green deal.

Back home, our government’s intentions on switch to a green economy is an eyewash. Whereas it has been acknowledged that nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to land use changes (agriculture and deforestation), the National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill 2011 is hinged on the inevitability of urbanisation a ’la land use change. Cities not only account for 75 per cent of energy consumption but 75 per cent of carbon emissions as well, and for the first time in history more than half of the world population lives in urban areas. Urbanisation alone will make a mockery of the so-called green economy.

Bolivia, perhaps the only country that is vocal on the ambiguities of a green economy, has charged green capitalism as a distraction from the real issues that the world needs to address to realise sustainable development. It has warned that the new forms of mercantilism and speculation being proposed could further despoil nature while entrenching existing injustices. Can the same bankers, who have contributed to the largest financial crises, be believed to manage the planet? Your guess is as good as mine!

(The writer is a development analyst)

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