States Not Yet Agreed on Scope, Benefits, Risks, Costs of ‘Green Economy’, Say Speakers as Preparatory Meeting for ‘Rio + 20’ Continues

18 May 2010
ENV/DEV/1141

States Not Yet Agreed on Scope, Benefits, Risks, Costs of ‘Green Economy’, Say Speakers as Preparatory Meeting for ‘Rio + 20’ Continues

18 May 2010
General Assembly
ENV/DEV/1141
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Preparatory Committee for UN Conference

 on Sustainable Development

3rd & 4th Meetings (AM & PM)

States Not Yet Agreed on Scope, Benefits, Risks, Costs of ‘Green Economy’,

Say Speakers as Preparatory Meeting for ‘Rio + 20’ Continues

In Two Sessions, Delegates Debate Gaps in Implementation since Rio,

Twin Themes for 2012 Conference: Green Economy, Institutional Framework

Focusing their second day of talks on two themes identified by the General Assembly for discussion in 2012 — a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development — participants at the first Preparatory Committee meeting for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development urged that new concepts not sideline already agreed sustainable development platforms.

The Committee, mandated by the Assembly to undertake preparations for the 2012 Conference, will meet twice more to discuss and refine those concepts before the Conference convenes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 years after the landmark Earth Summit.

The day began with developing nations seeking assurances that new paradigms introduced at the Conference would not upset existing financial and technical arrangements, which had already been agreed under existing sustainable development platforms.  As for the concept of a green economy, most speakers acknowledged that the international community had yet to reach an understanding of its scope, benefits, risks and costs, saying it needed to be further assessed.

Several developing countries said they believed the green-economy approach did not offer a new way to address the disparity wrought by the prevailing economic system.  One speaker called it “green neo-capitalism”, because of the suggestion by one developed nation to “set prices” on natural resources.  Many developing countries also asked that the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities — on which financial agreements between developed and developing countries were based — continue to be upheld after “Rio + 20”, as the Conference was sometimes called.

Those views were challenged by other Member States who chose to see economic greening in broader terms; as a way of assigning the true cost of health problems, premature deaths and lost productivity, and the opportunity cost of badly managed natural resources.  Pointing out that many developing countries were rich in biodiversity, they said natural resources would be more highly valued through the green approach and would likely have a favourable effect on those States’ economic competitiveness.  Better pricing policies and less perverse subsidies were also likely to have a favourable effect on financial flows.

In the Committee’s afternoon discussion on an institutional framework for sustainable development, speakers remarked that social, economic and environmental issues were too often addressed as separate pillars and not as an integrated whole, although they were mutually reinforcing.  Still, considerable attention was drawn to the environmental pillar, with participants calling on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to help countries strengthen the environmental component of their national policies.

Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, said that the so-called Belgrade process, an initiative of the Governing Council of UNEP and environment ministers, had concluded that the status quo was no longer an option — that the 35‑to‑40‑year evolution of environmental governance had been hampered by complexities, lack of coherence, sheer volume and lack of synergistic approaches, particularly for the smaller nations.  That high-level policy process had been intended to refine the reform agenda and contribute to the Rio Conference in 2012.

The Preparatory Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 19 May, to conclude its work.

Session 2

Taking up the topic of “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”, many speakers observed the lack of a clear, consensus agreement on the term “green economy”.  As they took up that theme — one of two specified by the General Assembly in resolution 64/236, which provided the mandate for the 2012 Conference, dubbed Rio + 20 — States were, in the words of one speaker, in a position of “constructive doubt”; doubtful of the merits of discussing a new economic paradigm, yet willing to engage constructively towards a mutual understanding.  They acknowledged that, up to now, States had yet to reach an understanding of the scope, benefits, risks and costs of a green economy.  For that reason, in the lead up to Rio + 20, it was important to assess whether the concept would add value to already agreed sustainable development platforms, or whether those would now be sidelined.

As they grappled with the subject, speakers offered their thoughts on what they thought a green economy was.  One referred to it as “green new deal”.  Another called it an era of harmony between humans and nature, in which conservation and environmental protection were incorporated into economic activities.  Others spoke of a wave of change in people’s consumption and production patterns.  Still others described it as an economic system based on clean and renewable energy, of trade based on sustainable development and of low-carbon urban living.

However, several developing countries said they thought the green economy approach did not offer a new way to address the disparity among nations, brought about by the current economic system.  One speaker called it “green neo-capitalism”, because of the proposal by one developed nation to “assess the value of ecosystem services” and to “set the prices” on natural resources.  Such speakers voiced concern over renewed protectionism by developed countries under the guise of economic greening, with one speaker asking that States engage in an “upfront discussion of protectionist intentions”.  Others with similar views asked that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities — on which many financial agreements between developed and developing countries were based — continue to be upheld after Rio + 20.

As one speaker noted, massive investments were needed in renewable energy technologies to change the world’s energy consumption — an element of economic greening.  That would be an added burden to many economies, particularly developing countries.  He questioned whether States were truly prepared to move to new forms of production and consumption at a time of grave economic uncertainty.  Along those lines, some called for investments to be stepped up in developing countries during the preparatory period, so that countries were in a position to report on progress in 2012, the year of the Conference.

Another developing country speaker expressed fears that the green economy concept, if improperly applied, could turn into a “normative straitjacket”.  Countries such as India, for example, had chosen to pursue increased agricultural productivity as a national priority, in order to be able to feed its people.  Being greenhouse-gas intensive, agricultural activities were not very “green”, and that country’s representative wondered whether a green economy approach would provide enough policy space for States such as his own to continue pursuing their chosen policies.  Another developing country speaker said she did not wish to see a transition to a green economy based on internationally prescribed conditionalities.

However, a speaker from an industrialized country challenged other Committee members to view economic greening in broader terms — as a way of assigning the true cost of health problems, premature deaths and lost productivity, and the opportunity cost of badly managed natural resources.  That speaker argued that natural resources would be more highly valued in the green economy approach.  Pointing out that many developing countries were rich in natural resources, she said that, in a green economy, those resources would be properly accounted for, bringing about a favourable effect on those States’ economic competitiveness.  Better pricing policies and less perverse subsidies were also likely to have a favourable effect on financial flows.  Another said that, rather than fearing it, States should embrace it as an opportunity to do better for their citizens and the environment.

Another added that the green economy addressed social development in a fundamental way and, when combined with the environmental protection aspect, would make growth sustainable, creating employment.  Green growth tended to be more labour intensive then “brown growth” — the traditional mode of growth based on fossil fuels — which was valuable for continued employment creation.  And while it may require financial “reinforcement”, its gains would outweigh initial costs.

Also at the meeting, speakers voiced varying hopes for Rio + 20: they said that, at that Conference, the international community needed to identify ways to guarantee compliance with existing agreements.  It needed to continue to chip away at the uneven distribution of wealth in the world, figure out how to guarantee markets would not be unfair and make sure States lived up to official development assistance (ODA) targets.  To create the right environment to allow for the transformation from brown to green, the international community must fix structural problems in the current global economic architecture.  Not only would States have to strengthen their political commitment to righting the global system, they would also need to adopt a broad, political road map and agree on the tools needed to reach their final destination.

Another representative lamented the big implementation gap, which, coupled with today’s crises, was most severely affecting least developed countries.  Those countries had fewer resources and higher levels of vulnerabilities.  Their situation should be duly taken into account in preparing for the 2012 summit.  A genuine multi-stakeholder partnership was crucial to strengthening the sustainable development pillars and boosting their implementation, he said.

Another speaker said the quest to intensify the convergence between economic growth and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was at the heart of his country’s efforts to create a sustainable society and economy in which renewable energy in electric modes of transportation would play a growing role.  The interpretation of similarly broad policy measures would generate new demand and energize the economy.  Discussions at Rio + 20 should be visionary and based on the existing framework; they should avoid debating a precise definition of a green economy and instead lay out the various approaches.

A green economy was not one destination or one recipe or one end state, but a series of pathways to be determined by countries as they looked at opportunities and constraints, a United Nations agency representative declared.  Every national economy was embedded in the global economy, which was either distorted or enabling, with the latter providing incentives.  Rio was a unique opportunity to very rapidly tap into the enabling environment unfolding across various continents.

Another speaker sought a deeper understanding of the threats and negative aspects of the green economy, and he urged the Chair to consider the relationship of the green economy to weakened economic growth and to decoupling and the use of natural resources.  Was there a scientific basis for a green economy or was it just a desire?  There was agreement on the need for a report on the risks of a green economy, and it was important that the topic be dealt with in depth and not superficially.  He also asked about green growth in the context of the modern economy, which was motivated by consumer demand.

The time had come to draw some lessons, asserted another speaker.  Within the United Nations, some concerns had been raised about social issues not being taken fully into account in the context of the green economy, and the issue of “green protectionism” had come up.  The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) had raised some of those concerns, as had the regional commissions, and it was important to bring that issue to the table.

Participating in the discussion were representatives of Yemen (on behalf of the Group of 77 and China), Spain (on behalf of the European Union), Senegal, China, Bolivia, Cuba, Uruguay, India, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Norway, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Ecuador, United States, Argentina, Switzerland, Venezuela, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, Barbados, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Nepal (on behalf of the least developed countries), Japan, Egypt, Grenada, Canada and Mauritius.

Other contributions were made by representatives of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ECSWA) (speaking on behalf of all United Nations regional commissions), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as and the Director of the Division for Sustainable Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Representatives of major groups — women, indigenous people, workers and trade unions, business and industry, non-governmental organizations, scientific and technological community, farmers and local authorities — also spoke.

Session 3

Leading the next discussion entitled “Institutional framework for sustainable development” was John Ashe (Antigua and Barbuda), who drew attention to questions geared to guiding delegations:  What adjustments were needed to strengthen the global institutional architecture on sustainable development, and how could the Commission be strengthened?  How could effective synergies between existing instruments and processes be encouraged, along with enhanced coordination and cooperation between multilateral agreements promoting sustainable development and environmental sustainability, as well as key global institutions?  What actions were required to build stronger bridges between the sustainable development pillars and their respective institutions at global, regional, national and subregional levels?

One representative worried that divergent views remained on how to enhance the efficiency of the current United Nations system in the area of sustainable development.  In that regard, the 2012 Conference should be aimed at enhancing political commitment and increasing efforts to ensure that current institutions involved in implementing that agenda in the United Nations system became more efficient, including through the promotion of synergies and provision of adequate resources.  Strengthening the institutional framework would accelerate the sustainable development agenda’s achievement in all three of its dimensions.

Another speaker sought exploration during the preparatory process of ways to strengthen the environmental pillar to make it more coherent and ensure more synergy with institutions that made up that pillar.  The Rio meeting, some suggested, would be a historic opportunity to put the Commission on Sustainable Development at the centre of the process.  As sustainable development lay in coordinated development of the three pillars, any institutional framework for its advancement must be centred on those, without emphasis on one at the expense of another.

It was also felt by several speakers that priority attention should be given to enhancing the capacity-building of developing countries and increasing financial support to those striving towards sustainable development.  One delegate said that building an institutional framework for sustainable development was a systematic endeavour involving multiple aspects, which made it necessary to fully hear the views of Member States on the matter and to advance gradually.  It was recommended by many that the Commission should further strengthen its role, particularly in the area of policy guidance.

Throughout the discussion, calls were heard to restructure the institutional framework.  As it stood, one speaker said, the social, economic and environmental issues were too often addressed as separate pillars and not as an integrated whole, although they were mutually reinforcing.  A new institutional framework should better facilitate convergence between those pillars at all levels.

Effective coherence of the United Nations system was again stressed as a means to minimize fragmentation.  Increasingly, financial resources were channelled through other funds and programmes, one speaker worried, but a United Nations that demonstrated more efficiency would not only be able to deliver more effectively, but be more attractive for donors and recipients alike.

Several delegations said specific efforts should be devoted to the environmental pillar, and they called for a more rational and simplified governance structure within the United Nations.  The Organization, they said, must be better at developing policy for sustainable development as an integrated tool.  That applied to the roles and functions of the Economic and Social Council, the Commission, funds and programmes, and the governing boards of the specialized agencies.  The current fragmented governance structure led to an unsustainable number of individual meetings, which was an invitation to duplication, unmet gaps and highly ineffective decision-making, one delegate warned.

Another urged the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to have a “prevailing” role, to help countries strengthen the environmental component of their national policies.  Responding, UNEP’s Executive Director agreed that environmental governance was indeed integral to the overall framework of sustainable development governance.  He assured the meeting that the decision of the Governing Council of UNEP and environment ministers to conduct a high-level policy process had been intended to refine the reform agenda and contribute to the Rio Conference in 2012.  The ministers had thus far, through the so-called Belgrade process, identified a twin-track agenda of reforms.

They had concluded that the status quo was no longer an option — that the 35‑to‑40‑year evolution of environmental governance had been hampered by complexities, lack of coherence, sheer volume and lack of synergistic approaches, particularly for the smaller nations, he said.  The system was in danger of disenfranchising those countries from the broader environmental process; they simply did not have the human or financial resources to join those efforts.  The discussion leading to Rio could assist with that, and must not allow the status quo to prevail.  One reason the United Nations had been mandated to be the “convener” of such discussions was to ensure that the few did not dictate to the many how global governance should be designed and implemented.

Other participants in the afternoon segment included representatives of Yemen (on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries and China), Spain (on behalf of the European Union), Senegal, China, Republic of Korea, Bolivia, Norway, Japan, Kenya, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, Grenada (on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States) and Switzerland.

The representatives of the following major groups also spoke:  workers and trade unions; non-governmental organizations; indigenous people; and women.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.