Understanding The Green Economy

The concept of sustainable development was first widely embraced by the international community in 1992 at the United Nations (UN) conference on the environment and development—the Rio Earth Summit. Sixteen years later, in 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a variety of green economy initiatives aimed at helping to realize the Rio vision (UNEP, 2011). Together, these steps have made the search for more efficient, equitable and sustainable approaches to development a central focus of urban and regional planning. This article describes what analysts mean when they employ the term the “green economy” and outlines some of the mechanisms that have been or could be used to promote and advance environmental and economic sustainability.

UNEP (2010) has argued that a green economy will result in improvements in human well-being and social equity by significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity. Such an economy is based on a combination of reducing carbon emissions, enhancing the efficiency of resource use and promoting social inclusivity (UNEP, 2011). In other words, those pressing for a green economy seek to integrate social democratization with environmental sustainability to produce more efficient and equitable societies.

Green & Hay (2015) have suggested that the principal reason why current growth patterns have proven unsustainable is rooted in the fact that they are based on the assumption that infinite growth is possible in a finite system. That orientation has resulted in economic and social processes that have aggressively abused the environment while resulting in rising levels of social inequality. To shift this way of thinking Egoca et al. (2015) have contended that a green development path should retain and restructure natural capital as a source of public benefits, especially for those living in precarious conditions whose livelihoods depend on those resources. In sum, truly to pursue a green economy represents a fundamental challenge to long-dominant ways of thinking and of behavior relative to the environment.

Indeed, several scholars have suggested that if cities do not change their present approach to development and growth soon, by 2050, the world’s population will confront an array of grave environmental and social conditions (Gibbs & O’Nelly, 2015). According to Green & Hay (2015), for example, some likely manifestations of that crisis, if allowed to develop unchecked will be:

  • Severe water stress around the globe,
  • A rise in international energy consumption of 80%, driven disproportionately by China and India,
  • A 50% increase in green house emissions, pushing the ambient temperature on earth from 3 degrees Centigrade to 6 degrees Centigrade higher by the end of the century and
  • The emergence of air pollution as the top environmental cause of early death worldwide.

As noted above, proponents of a green economy contend that the gravity of these emerging challenges demands new ways of thinking and behaving. The following section briefly synthesizes the existing literature regarding available mechanisms to advance toward a green economy worldwide. First, technological innovations are likely to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly by promoting and increasing use of renewable energy sources. According to Brown (2012), technology will play a significant role in assisting societies to transition from finite fossil fuelsthat have remained the dominant source of energy for generations – to renewable energy sources, which are inexhaustible.

However, since demand for electricity, a key consumer of energy, has grown rapidly, cities are facing the challenge not only of implementing new technologies, but also of pressing for innovations in its generation to satisfy existing demand. Additionally, it is important to recognize that analyses of prior experience have suggested that technological fixes tend to be undemocratic and unsustainable, so it will be critical to ensure that clear accountability mechanisms and transparency accompanies such changes (UNEP, 2011).

UNEP (2010) has argued that clean energy technologies need to be developed and integrated into, among other areas, commuting alternatives, waste management and waste disposal methods, existing building modifications and future construction and in manufacturing processes. That UN entity has also suggested that transitioning to a green economy will demand substantial social change including acculturating populations to a shared conception of what it means to be global citizens. According to UNEP and many scholars, the present moment constitutes an opportunity to transform social structures and institutions including,

  • Recognizing an emerging need to adjust GDP measures to account for pollution, resource depletion, declining ecosystems and the distributive consequences of natural capital loss (Mundaca, 2014).
  • Analyzing current processes to identify who enjoys power in the status quo and who has authority and power to make needed changes (Baer, 2012).
  • Recognizing and promoting the social narrative that development should not only be efficient, but must also be fair (Green & Hay, 2015).
  • Implementing international fiscal and policy reforms concerning energy market infrastructure and use (UNEP, 2011).
  • Promoting efficiencies in health and education priority setting processes (Brown, 2015).
  • Accepting the challenge that in order to achieve a green economy, both rich and poor countries alike should adopt a fresh approach to development.

A final mechanism for change consists of investing in natural capital to protect and empower those sectors that constitute key engines of production including, agriculture, farming, fishing, water treatment and forest protection (UNEP, 2010).

However, although farming, for instance, often constitutes one of the main sources of employment for members of economically disadvantaged groups, population growth, current chemical-intensive planting practices and continuous demand for land contribute substantially to greenhouse gases emissions and to environmental degradation, including deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

As UNEP (2011) has argued, the promotion of green agriculture through innovation, investment and policy reforms will not only help to ensure food security on a sustainable basis, but also aid in reducing the external costs of the current industrial farming regimen. The UN environment agency (2011) has suggested that it is important to promote investment opportunities and policy changes that are broadly appealing internationally as well as replicable and scalable to secure a successful transition to a green global economy.

Table 1 (see below) provides, in summary fashion, the central areas in which change must occur to create the green economy sketched in this article, and outlines their potential implications for the environment and employment.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize that a shift in current development strategies to more sustainable practices is urgently needed to prevent further global warming and irreversible ecological degradation world-wide. One feasible way of doing so is to advocate and promote the implementation of green economies as a new approach to economic and social growth.

Table 1

Mechanisms to Promote a Green Economy and their Impact

Mechanisms Impacts on Environment Impacts on Economy Impacts on Employment
No. 1. Innovation in technology fixes in order to encourage energy efficiency in:
* Transportation models.
* Waste management.
* Existing buildings modifications and future constructions regulations.
* Current manufacturing technics.
Use of inexhaustible energy obtained by natural sources, therefore, reduction of greenhouse gasses emission.

Negative Externalities: Based in prior practices, technological fixes tend to be implemented by unsustainable methods, which could damage the environment and biodiversity.

Technical fixes can represent a significant investment when implementing them, however, once implemented, those can represent a significant reduction in costs of regular use and maintenance. i.e.: solar panel implementation.

Budget limitations: Since investment is needed in order to implement technological fixes, the poorest nations will remain excluded unless global agreements are arranged.

Room for innovation: Creation of innovative managerial positions in order to achieve the established goals.

Creation of several technical positions in order to satisfy the employment demand and to guide all the technical procedures of the new implemented models.

No.2. Implementation of public policy and institutional reforms. Once measurements to account pollution, resources depletion and declining ecosystems are redesigned, it will be easier to reduce environmental impacts such as global warming and biodiversity loss. Empower the most vulnerable when creating opportunities to overcome inequality will contribute the global economic performance.

Investment will be required when implementing fiscal and policy reforms, international collaboration trades, and market infrastructure.

Once the distribution consequences of natural capital loss to the poor get recognized, equality will be promoted.

If green economy is achieved by institutional regulations, it will solve the contradiction between ecology and economy within the capitalism mode of production (UNEP, 2011)

Because the green economy is a floating signifier, it creates the possibility of miss-readings so it is vulnerable to be captured by the most powerful and economic fears.

Several jobs positions will be re-structured in order to implement all the required reforms.

Creation of new job positions in order to satisfy the demand of new institutional reforms.

No. 3.
Investing in natural capital in order to protect and empower those sectors that constitute a key engine to production
such as:
* Agriculture
* Farming
* Fishing
* Water treatment
* Forest protection
Substantially reduce greenhouse gases emissions and environmental degradation such as deforestation and loss of biodiversity, by modifying current farming practices. Technical fixes can represent a significant investment when implementing them, however, once implemented, those can represent a significant reduction in costs of regular use and maintenance. i.e.: solar panels implementation.

Budget limitations: Since investment is needed in order to implement technological fixes, the poorest nations will remain excluded unless global agreements are arranged.

Reduce the cost of current industrial farming practices externalities (billions of dollars per year) and help to ensure food security on a sustainable basis.

Empower and promote one of the main sources of employment to the most economically disadvantaged.

Re-structuring jobs positions – perhaps loos of employment – while implementing the required reforms.

Room for innovation: Creation of innovative and managerial positions in order to achieve the established goals.

Baer, H. 2012. Global Capitalism and Climate Change: the need for an alternative world system. Lanham, Maryland: Alta Mira Press.

Brown, M. 2015. Developing and using green skills for the transition to a low carbon economy, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(2), 180-201.

Egorca, M, Pluzhnic, M, Glik, P. 2015. Global trends of green economy development as a factor for improvement of economical and social prosperity, Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 194-198.

Gibbs, D, O’Neill, K. 2015. Building a green economy? Sustainability transitions in the UK building sector, Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, University of Hull, United Kingdom.

Green, J, Hay, C. 2015. Towards a new political economy of the crisis: Getting what went wrong right, New political economy, 20(3), 331-341, DOI:10.1080/13563467.2014.951432.

Mundaca, L. 2014. Measuring progress towards a “Green Energy Economy”: Who is really winning the race? International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University, Sweden.

UNEP. 2010. Green Economy Developing Countries Success Stories. UNEP, Geneva, viewed 15 September 2016, < http://www.unep.org/pdf/GreenEconomy_SuccessStories.pdf> Accessed, January 31, 2016.

.2011. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, UNEP, viewed 15 September 2016, http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/Portals/88/documents/ger/GER_synthesis_en.pdf Accessed January 31, 2016.

Vanessa G pic

Vanessa is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include: City planning, blighted area redevelopment, sustainable development, transportation, urban renewal and public space.

She earned a master of Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne-Australia and a bachelor of Architecture at USFQ University in Quito-Ecuador.

Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Vanessa participated with the University of Melbourne in the project “How Sustainable Transport Networks Build Great Cities” at Munich and Zurich and won the Bailey Oratorical Contest at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. She has taught at USFQ and UDLA Universities and co-founded LIGNUM in Quito, an architecture firm.

She is currently investigating transport interventions as potential contributors to poverty reduction. Vanessa is researching Quito’s urban form and the impact and significance of informal transport systems for residents of Quito’s outlying areas.

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