1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Policies for Inclusive and Sustainable Development

Social Dimensions of Green Economy and Sustainable Development

  • Project from: 2011 to 2012


This project, which fed into the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), responded to widespread concern that the social dimensions are not well understood or integrated in discussions on sustainable development. It aimed to develop a conceptual and policy framework that would position social dimensions at the centre of green economy and sustainable development, and informed the Rio+20 process and subsequent policy discussions. The project includes the following activities and outputs:

Background: Bringing back the social?

Changes in patterns of investment, technology, production and consumption associated with sustainability—often referred to as green economy—have taken centre stage in international development circles. This potentially transformative approach emphasizes the need to shift from high to low carbon systems. However, the concept of green economy, and the strategies to promote it, are highly contested. There are widely varying assessments of the opportunities, costs and benefits of green economy transition for different social groups, countries and regions, and diverging opinions about the different approaches for achieving the social, environmental and economic objectives inherent in the concept of sustainable development. In this context, the core theme of Rio+20 is “Green Economy for Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication”.

By explicitly linking green economy with the goals of sustainable development and poverty eradication, the Rio+20 process called attention to the importance of the social dimensions of development. What remains unclear is how these social dimensions will be interpreted and applied in practice. As governments, social actors and experts deliberate on how to connect green economy and social dimensions of development, there is a need to guard against narrow interpretations that reduce “the social” to “green jobs”, social protection for those negatively affected by transition, or that simply bolt the Millennium Development Goals onto a green economy agenda. It is far from clear whether a green economy transition will centre on technological fixes and “business as usual” or, conversely, be seized as an opportunity to enhance well-being and transform the social structures, institutions and power relations that underpin various forms of vulnerability and inequality.

Unless social dimensions are addressed more comprehensively, there is a danger that efforts to connect green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication will fail. Through this project, UNRISD engaged with past and present research in order to position the social dimensions more centrally in green economy debates within the UN system.

Occasional Paper series on Green Economy and Sustainable Development

This UNRISD Occasional Paper series, produced in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for Rio+20, aims to stimulate debate around the social dimensions of green economy and sustainable development. While the Rio+20 process explicitly links the goals of promoting green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication, the social dimensions have received relatively little attention compared to economic and environmental concerns.

Poverty reduction and equitable development are often assumed to be outcomes of low-carbon growth, which in turn is achieved principally through market mechanisms. Targeted social protection interventions are designed in tandem to compensate or protect marginalized or disadvantaged groups. Yet the papers in this series show that deeper transformation of the social structures, institutions and power relations underpinning vulnerability and inequality is required to ensure that development processes are greener and fairer for all. Social policy, broadly conceived, has a key role to play in both achieving this transformation, and supporting changes in the structures of production and consumption necessary for a green economy.

Think Pieces on Social Dimensions of Green Economy

Opinions diverge about how green economy should be defined, and about which approaches are best for bringing together the social, economic and environmental objectives of sustainable development.

In this series of short think pieces, researchers from academia, civil society and policy making from across the world reflect on a broad range of arguments, evidence and perspectives that surround the social dimensions of green economy. The papers illustrates that there are many ways to interpret how best to achieve a green economy that is also fair, equitable and that contributes to poverty eradication. Some of the papers offer critiques of the concept of green economy and ways forward; others discuss case studies of where green economy approaches have been, or could be, implemented with social goals in mind.

Together, this collection of short think pieces contributes to the global debate about the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Video Series

This project is exploring the use of video as a research communication tool. The project is producing engaging and informative content to introduce themes relevant for stakeholders leading up to Rio+20, and highlight the key issues, challenges and ways forward for research, activism and policy. Six short videos have been produced based on footage from the conference on Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension, and interviews with speakers. The first film, an overview, situates green economy within sustainable development and explores its potential as a path to inclusive, sustainable development and poverty eradication. The following five films address themes from the conference: markets, social policy, participation, agriculture and alternative visions. These have been released at intervals between January and May 2012 as part of the build up to Rio+20.

Podcasts on Social Dimensions of Green Economy

Also as part of this project, leading thinkers talk about their research on the social dimensions of green economy.
  • Strengthening workers: A challenge for the green economy in Latin America, Amalia Palma and Claudia Robles (English / Spanish)
  • Interview with Laura Rival on ecological threats, new promises of sustainability and the evolving political economy of land use change in rural Latin America (English / Spanish)