Panel 1: Green Economy and Global Sustainability

Statement by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Distinguished colleagues,

As you know, green economy and global sustainability are high on the international agenda.

Next year, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development will take place in Rio de Janeiro. One of the themes of this conference will be a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

To reach meaningful agreement at Rio + 20, we need to answer a number of questions:

Can building a green economy enable countries to close the implementation gap on commitments made in Agenda 21, and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation?

Can it help countries address new and emerging challenges? Can it contribute to poverty reduction?

We also need to understand the main shortcomings of current policy and practice. What are they and how can a focus on green economy help us overcome them?

All of these are critical questions.

Equally important is the question of how Africa can benefit from a green economy.

Let us consider for a moment – the concept of green economy.

Many have asked in the preparatory meetings for Rio + 20: why is there a need for a new concept like green economy? What’s wrong with sustainable development?

The context for this question is clear: sustainable development is a child of Rio 1992.

It reconciles environment with development issues. It takes into account the vast differences in countries’ levels of development, as well as in priorities, responsibilities and capabilities for addressing global environmental problems.

Any discussion of green economy must start from this recognition – hence, a green economy “in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

“Green economy” contains the idea that economic growth and environmental protection can be compatible; that they can proceed together and even be mutually reinforcing.

It emphasizes integration and synergies over trade-offs, and focuses the attention of decision makers on realizing such synergies.

This is not a new idea: it is at the core of the Rio Declaration of 1992.

Indeed, many now describe green economy as a pathway to accelerating sustainable development. It translates into enhanced energy access, low-carbon growth, food security, and sustainable management of forest, land and water resources.

A focus on green economy therefore makes it imperative that we engage economic decision makers – finance, economics, planning, trade, agriculture, industry ministers – in our discussions.

If they are not engaged, whatever comes out of Rio + 20 is likely to have only a small impact on the ground.

That is why it is so encouraging to see distinguished ministers of finance and economy sitting on this panel today.

Growing evidence shows us that the traditional path to growth is no longer viable.

In virtually all countries, developed, developing or economies in transition, per capita GDP growth has always been the principal objective of economic policy.

This measure has been an established predictor of poverty reduction and improvements in social well-being. Investments in physical and human capital, as well as technological improvements, have traditionally been the main levers for promoting growth.

Only in recent years has this view of growth come into serious question, as mounting environmental problems threaten to derail the train of economic progress.

Now we know, thanks to science and the work of the IPCC, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and others, that unconstrained growth is not sustainable. It keeps us on a path of dangerous climate change, water shortage and irreversible loss of biodiversity.

Furthermore, the scale of the possible damages from climate change suggests that such growth would eventually stall, and very possibly reverse development in many parts of the world. This could lead to declines in crop yields, resource productivity and incomes.

The irony , or rather the tragedy, is that African countries, while contributing little to CO2 emissions, are among the most vulnerable to reversal of economic progress from climate change.

Therefore, the burden on Africa in embarking on a green growth path is especially heavy. Africa must be provided with support in finance and technology.

This is why developing countries need to access and deploy low-carbon technologies that are affordable to their populations. This is why strengthened international cooperation and knowledge sharing are necessary.

African countries will need affordable technologies for climate change adaptation, for sustaining agricultural productivity, for improving access to energy, water and sanitation – in short, for pursuing green growth.

The issues that concern developing countries when considering a green economy are the same ones that have preoccupied them for decades: technology transfer, concessional finance, market access, but the urgency for support in these areas has never been greater.

The rationale for this is simple – – if countries seriously pursue a green economy transition, profound and rapid changes are now needed – in technologies, markets, business models, production methods, and consumption patterns.

In this changing global context, will developing countries face new market barriers, new technology gaps, new and additional investment costs?

These are genuine concerns which need to be addressed. Many African countries have voiced such concerns at the recent PrepCom in New York. And the only way they are likely to be addressed is through commitments by developed countries and the international community – commitments to which they should be held accountable.

Distinguished Delegates,

Building a global green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is a collective endeavor. It involves the public and private sectors, civil society, local governments, and development partners.

It is not a question of whether to build it – for the alternative may well condemn future generations to permanent underdevelopment – but how to build it?

How do we build a green economy in an inclusive and equitable fashion, while taking into account Africa’s specific conditions?

How do we move the world, and Africa, towards a dual convergence: upward convergence in human development, and downward convergence in “ecological footprints”?

I hope our discussion in this session brings us a little closer to the answers.