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The Green Economy scam

By Peter Hulm

Did any buzzword crash in and out of fashion as fast as The Green Economy? Constructed in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank and that 'rich nations' club' the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it was rejected in 2012 by tens of thousands of people in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The UN in Geneva has now put the idea under a full critical spotlight, thanks to the organization's Geneva library.

The 'green economy' concept was designed for Rio+20 to embrace as the new global paradigm, in the face of an increasingly threadbare 'sustainable development'. But it brought thousands out in demonstrations against what they saw as a PR con.

First in-depth analysis: 5 years late

Five years later, "the first, extended, in-depth analysis of the concepts and practices", according to activist professor Tim Jackson, has just appeared in English. This book is the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls, by Thomas Fatheuer, Lili Fuhr and Barbara Unmüssig.

The UN University has also produced an equally damning assessment of policies introduced under this banner: Green Growth: Ideology, Political Economy and the Alternatives.

The UNCTAD link

The link between the two publications is Ulrich Hoffmann, once an economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Co-author of the Green Growth study, he also reviewed the manuscript of Green Economy.

Along with Green Economy co-author Lili Fuhr, he was in the UN Library's Events Room on 23 February for a panel discussion of the two books, moderated by Library Director Francesco Pisano.

UN library photo

No politics, human rights, and business as usual

The early objections to Green Economy are easy to summarize: G77 nations resisted it as another incursion of Western interests into poorer nations. Fuhr's book argues: "Green Economy cares little about politics, barely registers human rights, does not recognize social actors and suggests the possibility of reform without conflict. It suggests that the world as we know it can continue with green growth."

Green growth for financial appeal

UNEP, the organization that did most to insist on the human rights dimension of global development, found itself declaring in Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication: "Green growth is faster than brown growth."

Prof. Jackson suggests this was "a dubious strategy aimed at bringing high-profile financial players to the table" and points out: "Scientists questioned the evidence for this claim. Environmental and social activists distanced themselves from its corporatist interpretations."

It isn't all about the CO2, stupid

Even worse, according to the new political economy studies, President Barack Obama's promise of a Global Green New Deal – championed, too, by UNEP at the start of its deliberations – was hijacked and by the end was all about carbon dioxide emissions.

This movement reached its apogee in the December 2015 Paris Agreement under the Climate Change Convention.

Another wrong turn

The Böll Foundation book argues: "We have taken many wrong turns:[...] first by accepting that climate policy was about reducing emissions alone (thus tackling only the output side), then believing that a tonne of CO2 not only equals any other tonne of CO2 no matter where it was emitted but that other greenhouse gases can be counted in CO2 equivalents."

Even worse, it warns, our "carbon-centric worldview" means we are about to take another wrong turn by adopting the principle of negative emissions.

Radical change needed

"This shift implies that the world can continue to produce emissions so long as new technologies are invented to suck carbon out of the atmosphere at a later stage – instead of embarking on a radical trajectory that leaves fossil fuels in the ground, changes our agricultural systems and restores our natural ecosystems" (16-17).

It's a sign of how even Green Economy Lite goes against corporatist wishes that the book has already fallen prey to events.

Missing the point

It boasts that the Paris Agreement to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees "can now be held against anyone daring to suggest opening a new coal mine anywhere on the planet" (16). Tell that to Donald Trump.

But it makes the point: "The obsession with carbon metrics helps to promote nuclear energy, natural gas extraction (including fracking), biofuels and other risky and harmful technologies, as long as they can claim to produce less carbon-emission" (17).

Six degrees warming likely?

Ulrich Hoffmann's book is yet more pessimistic in its assessment: "Even a doubling of global carbon efficiency would still lift temperatures by 6 degrees." (Ouch).

"Greening our economy is important but not enough and conveys a fake and dangerous notion of safety," Hoffmann told the Library's audience of mainly young people.

No easy fixes

The urgent challenge is to decouple economic growth from material/energy/resource use, he said. "There are no easy (techno and investment) fixes."

The average growth of total greenhouse gases (not just CO2) has been 2.5% a year in this millennium, compared to 1.5% for 1973-2000, he pointed out.

To keep global warming down to 2 degrees, developing countries would need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Developed countries would have to institute "negative emissions".

Deceptive gains

But while the fuel consumption per km is going down for cars in the EU, for example, kilometres travelled per private car are climbing steadily (30% more than in 1990). So what seems good in the car ads turns out to be disastrous in reality.

It's a result of what economists call the Efficiency Illusion or Jevons' Paradox, known since 1865. Gains in efficiency at the local level encourage us to take advantage of these gains, resulting in an overall increase in resource use.

Disguising reality

And our statistics on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tend to disguise the real situation, Hoffmann warns. They usually exclude the emissions incorporated in our trade figures.

So for the UK, production-related GHGs show a 14% decrease. In fact, there was a 20% increase between 1990 and 2008 when consumption-related GHGs are included.

Germany likewise can boast a 15.4% decline in production-related emissions, versus a 16% increase in reality.

They don't mean the same thing

It's clear that green economy, green growth, and greening the economy do not mean the same thing, depending on the person you are talking to, or the organization that is promoting a particular policy.

A Geneva professor in the audience complained that the UN itself is more and more talking about climate change rather than the environment in its policy publications.

U.N. knows 'going green' is not enough

Ben Simmons, invited on the panel as a commentator from the online Green Growth Knowledge Platform, wisely did not try to debate the issues, pointing out that many in the UN would agree with the scientists that "going green" is not enough to provide complete resource management.

His message rather was that the platform tries to put the best information available into the hands of decision-makers.

Peter Hulm produced a video for UNEP in the early days of its Green Economy Initiative (December 2008) He has also consulted for UNCTAD and UNEP on environmental policy and development issues.