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Rio +20: Green economy vs Ecological debt

By Rikard Warlenius

The high-level UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last week was called an ”epic failure” by Greenpeace and other environmental organizations. Their disappointments are reminiscent of the ”epic failure” of the UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa only half a year earlier. Other critics have re-named the summit “Rio–20”, since no progress at all has been made since the Earth Summit in the same city in 1992, when three important conventions were adopted on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. Yet, despite their noble ambitions, these conventions have failed miserably in reversing the negative global environmental trends: since 1990, yearly emissions of carbon dioxide have increased 45 % and soon the atmospheric concentration will pass 400 ppm, to be compared with the 280 ppm pre-industrial rate. The extinction rate of species today is alarmingly high with some 30 % of amphibians, 21 % of birds and 25 % of mammal species at risk. The fight against desertification is also being lost, with the percentage of degraded land area rising from 15 % in 1991 to 24 % in 2008.

But if the 1992 Rio Summit convention was too little too late, at least it still remotely mustered some global political ambition for dealing with the ecological crises. The same cannot be said of any global environmental agreements since. The 2012 Rio declaration, ironically called “The future we want”, is nothing but a political surrender to the forces of ecological destruction that now put human civilization as we know it at stake.

From a geopolitical perspective the negotiation stalemate is doubtlessly caused by the inaction of the developed countries in the North. Even though their population is only one fifth of the worlds’, their accumulated carbon emissions amount to 75 % of the total. Similar figures for ecological footprints inexorably reveals who has caused – and benefited from – environmental degradation, and who therefore should be obliged to take the lead – and pay the costs – towards a global green transition. Twenty years ago, this obligation was acknowledged through the adoption of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle 7 in Rio 1992. But since the North has never fulfilled its assignment – definitely not the US, with the EU being only slightly better – it is completely unrealistic that countries such as China, India, Brazil or South Africa would put their partly successful catch-up development at risk for cleaning up the mess caused by others.

Seen from an economic system perspective, the ecological crises reveal a crisis for the development model of both North and South. Inherent in the notion of “sustainable development” – launched in the 1987 Brundtland Report and the foundation for all mainstream environment policy since then – lies the promise of green growth, of constant win-win solutions between ecology and economy, that simply has not been met in reality. Not in the classic industrialization development formula, not in the private profit-maximizing structural adjustment neoliberalism, and not in the financial market approach of the so-called “green economy” that was the flavor of the month in Rio 2012. While never clearly defined, green economy usually refers to attempts at “internalizing the environmental externalities” through the objectification and commodification of ecosystems (reduced to their “environmental services”). These newly minted services can then be bought, traded or securitized as any other financial commodities.

Experience so far implies that such market-based solutions have weak environmental impacts but strong social impacts. Evaluations of the the CDM market, part of the carbon trading scheme of the Kyoto protocol, reveal that between one and two third of the projects do not deliver the promised emission cuts. In Africa, India and other parts of the world, poor rural dwellers are those most dependent on the free “services” – e.g. fresh water, food, firewood, medical plants – that the natural commons provide. Payment schemes may perhaps slow down deforestation at a high social price (such as restricting access to forest dwellers to use firewood for example), but the “avoided emissions” are then traded and exchanged for continued emissions in a developed country. In this way, commodification often means zero gains for the environment but a de-facto transfer of rights and properties from the poor to the rich. Essentially, it provides a way for those who can afford it to occupy double the environmental space, as they can continue emitting, while assuaging their guilt through “green consumption”. No wonder the “green economy” has been enthusiastically hailed by companies and governments stuck in the growth discourse while at the same time has been unequivocally rejected by social and environmental movements throughout the global South.

In order to find genuinely sustainable solutions – in both an environmental and social sense – to the current crises other methods and policies will most certainly prove necessary. But even more crucial is the insight that these crises cannot be solved only by the win-win market-based solutions. The social metabolism – the economy’s material and energy throughput from extraction to waste – tends to increase whether economic growth is dubbed green or not, and as it grows, so does ecological degradation and an increase of environmental distribution conflicts over the use of the resources – for social or market purposes. Stated goals to reduce the ecological and carbon footprint and at the same time improve life for the billions who still lack basic resources cannot be achieved while simultaneously maintaining growth for those who already live in prosperity. Someone will have to make sacrifices.

A truly sustainable agenda would have to start with a recognition of the ecological debt. From colonial days until today, raw materials and energy from the South and the global commons, as well as their sink capacities, have been expropriated for the social metabolism of the North without properly compensating material losses, ecological degradation, labor and lost development opportunities. This has been crucial for the North’s ability to secure world dominance as well as welfare and prosperity for most of its citizens, while the South’s efforts to catch up constantly have been undermined.

The ecological debt is hard to measure in full extent, but attempts at quantifying one important part of it, the climate debt, show that most African countries are creditors rather than a debtors, while all Northern countries have a huge debt not only to the South, but also to future generations everywhere for emitting greenhouse gases way above what is long-term sustainable. This debt should be acknowledged and compensated for, for instance through green technology transfer and cash payments directly to poor households.

Yet, a key element of recognizing and repaying the ecological debt is an acknowledgement of the historic inequity inherent in international trade relations. Manufactured goods from the North, produced quickly, have a value way above resources exported from countries of the global South, such as wood or oil, that can take decades or centuries to produce. This is clearly an unequal ecological exchange. While repayment of the ecological debt could and should enable (sustainable) development for those who need it most, it is also clear that the capitalist economic growth in both North and South has a very high social cost and is environmentally disastrous. In the end, a new development model is needed. Such a new model was not at all considered in the official 2012 Rio Earth Summit “negotiations”. But Rio de Janeiro also hosted a parallel People’s Summit, which was nothing less than an inclusive and democratic laboratory for the elaboration of sustainable ways forward. Here, “green economy” was rejected and replaced by a localized economy in harmony with nature and ideals of consumerism and growth abandoned for the adoption of liberated time and basic income as a prerequisite for “good life – buen vivir” for all.

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