By Emilio Godoy
The development of the green economy is the subject of pitched debate among specialists. While some believe it will deepen social inequalities and increase corporate control over natural and biological resources, others highlight its potential role in protecting the environment and creating employment.
“The green economy does not challenge current systems of production, such as the agro-alimentary industry, nor does it aim in any way to change patterns of consumption,” stressed Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America director of the non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).
Ribeiro told Tierramérica that some of the most troubling aspects of the green economy include “the massive use of biomass for fuel production, and the use of new technologies like synthetic biology, which can generate high levels of toxicity.”
In its study “Who Will Control the Green Economy?”, published Dec. 15, the ETC Group argues that the development of a green economy will primarily benefit large corporations, unless changes are made to the current models of production and consumption of goods and services and international governance.
It reveals that large transnational corporations in the energy, pharmaceutical, food and chemical industries are already forming alliances to exploit biomass and grab control of natural resources like land and water.
The study takes a specific look at a range of different sectors, including synthetic biology, bioinformatics and genome data generation, marine and other aquatic biomass, seeds and pesticides, plant gene banks, fertilizer and mining industries, forestry and paper, the animal pharmaceutical industry and livestock genetics.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines the green economy as “a system of economic activities related to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that result in improved human wellbeing over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities.”
The green economy will be a central theme at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), taking place Jun. 20-22 in the southern Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the first Earth Summit held in the same city in 1992.
The objective of the conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges
Rio+20 will focus specifically on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development.
UNEP has actively promoted the green economy since 2008, although it acknowledges the validity of some of the concerns raised around it.
“The green economy is an imperative. One of its goals is social equity and human wellbeing. The environment is recognized as a source of wealth,” U.S. economist Steven Stone, chief of UNEP’s Geneva-based Economics and Trade Branch, told Tierramérica.
Stone visited Mexico last week for the presentation of a national prospective study on the green economy, co-produced by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and Tecnológico de Monterrey, a private university.
“The real question is whether those who do the greatest damage to the environment are truly contributing to what needs to be done,” commented the director of the School of Economics at the public National Autonomous University of Mexico, Roberto Escalante.
“That is why there is a risk that greening the economy will deepen existing inequalities, so that those who have the least will bear the greatest costs of the environmental impacts,” he told Tierramérica
Escalante is conducting a research study, which he expects to complete during the first quarter of this year, on the effects of agriculture and deforestation on the environment, commissioned by SEMARNAT.
In the run-up to Rio+20, civil society organizations in Latin America are promoting a reworking of sustainable development with an emphasis on social and ecological aspects and a new economy to confront poverty and the concentration of wealth.
The World Economic and Social Survey 2011, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, recommends the investment of 1.9 billion dollars annually in green technologies over the next 40 years to combat the effects of climate change.
UNEP believes green investment should contribute to reducing the energy and water demands and carbon footprint of the production of goods and services.
“There are many alternatives, and the most convincing is the peasant farming economy, which already accounts for 70 percent of world food production,” noted Ribero, whose organization focuses on the environmental, social and economic impacts of new technologies.
The ETC Group study calls for the establishment of antitrust regimes to prevent monopoly control over resources and highlights the central importance of agriculture and food sovereignty.
It also emphasizes the need for greater international awareness around the proposed “techno fixes” which “are not capable of addressing systemic problems of poverty, hunger and environmental crises.”
“One of the key issues is the value of nature, which is not taken into account,” said Stone. “It is not included in economic calculations. These services need to be valued with limits and regulations.”
For his part, Escalante, whose research aims at offering alternatives for low-carbon agricultural production, advocates the use of new technologies, the participation of university institutions, and the formulation of integrated public policies.
“Environmental issues are essentially financial issues. This will be a key subject of discussion at Rio+20. A new vision should prevail, incorporating the prices of the environment in the world of the economy and establishing a scheme that guarantees equity,” he stressed.