Rio+20: The move toward a green economy

By Anna Aiken
January 30, 2012

In June 2012, the world's leaders will meet in Rio to set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade.

The draft text of what will be the outcome document for the Rio+20 Earth Summit has been in circulation for 10 days now and has already undergone a weekend of debate at the UN in New York.

The “zero draft” entitled; ‘The Future We Want’, attempts to prioritise and protect the international unity so badly needed. But to maximise the chances of a successful conference and a workable plan for the future, attempts at legally binding agreements seem to have been abandoned. Instead, immense faith is placed in national Governments to make "appropriate choices".

Relying on Governments to voluntarily back the Rio+20 agenda is a risky strategy. The sight of governments backing away from environmental pledges in the face of economic problems is familiar. It will fall therefore to civil society to ensure that responsibility at national level is not diluted.

The focus of Rio+20 will not be climate change as some may have expected. Rather than risking the fraying of political tempers, the focus is on fostering agreement on a host of related issues, which altogether work to mitigate climate change and put in place the principles for a sustainable future.

A move towards 'green economy' (an under-defined concept) is central to the Rio+20 agenda. Connected to this is a re-evaluation of how we measure progress. The limitations of GDP as the leading measure are recognised as problematic in the pursuit of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future.

The document considers that a green economy will be inclusive, equitable and employment-generating; it also links the concept to a host of wider social and environmental concerns stretching from poverty eradication, to energy provision to public health. This is a broad agenda which green economy cannot possibly achieve alone. As such, the language runs the risk of labelling ‘green economy’ as the latest development silver bullet, overshadowing other important factors.

Care will have to be taken to distinguish ‘green’ economics from ‘responsible capitalism’. The latter may seem like the easiest 'next step' for Governments balancing demands for economic recovery with demand for systemic change, but the two are driven by fundamentally different concerns.

Speculation over what should replace the MDGs in 2015 is officially addressed with a formal proposal for a set of Sustainable Development Goals. Centred on sustainable consumption and production – the foundation of a green economy – these goals will be agreed by 2015 with a suggested implementation date of 2030.

This timeline is ambitious and somewhat contrary to the broader aims of Rio+20. This conference could take the opportunity to set out a permanent framework for decision makers, but instead risks starting governments on another 15 year race against time. A slow but permanent shift to a framework which equally respects social, environmental and economic concerns could be just what is needed to ensure that the future imagined within this document is attainable.

The opening paragraph in the document suggests that Governments must "work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet". As the negotiations and revisions begin the pursuit of individual prosperity by nation states must not compromise the overall prosperity of the planet.


© Anna Aiken is a graduate of Birmingham University’s International Development Department. She holds an MSc in International Development, and is particularly interested in faith based development and women’s rights issues.

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