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A Fair Green Economy: Framing Green Economy and the Post-MDG Agenda in Terms of Equity

7 Sep 2011

This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

A fair green economy is one that can support sustainable development for all. However, to make this reality calls for certain conditions. For example, the discussion on green economy should move beyond green projects or green finance toward a transformation of global economic models to deliver long-term sustainability and greater equity; multilateral development banks should help developing countries to leapfrog to renewable energy; and finance and governance need to work together to support both green and poverty reduction objectives.

Alison Doig is a Senior Adviser on Climate Change and sustainable development at Christian Aid, London. Erica Carroll is a Policy Analyst at Christian Aid, London and currently focuses on tax and gender and fair green economy.

In the next few years the global community must address the dual crises of global poverty and global environmental degradation, including climate change. These problems are interrelated and it is clear that they cannot be solved separately. As the international community develops a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and at the same time aims at a global green economy, it is essential to recognize the role of inequality in perpetuating the high levels of global poverty and undermining attempts at environmental sustainability.

Global environmental and financial crises are forcing us to recognize that we must become better at generating economic activities using finite resources. The pressures on resources prompted by increasing population and consumption levels demand that we move toward a low-carbon, resource-efficient, green economy. However poorer countries and communities should not be expected to sacrifice their right to development because of past, and continuing, mistakes of richer nations. It is essential that the transition to a green economy is a just transition, and that it achieves a “fair” green economy that can support sustainable development for all.

Inequality at the heart
The threat to the planet and inequality go hand in hand. A report by Zero Waste Europe shows that the world extracts 50 per cent more raw materials today than it did in 1980; yet 80 per cent of this is consumed by the wealthiest 20 per cent.

Land, fresh water, forests, fish, minerals, fossil fuels and the carbon space in our atmosphere are all seen as commodities which can be taken by people with money and power. This increases the threat of a “natural resource grab” by wealthy states, multinational corporations and individuals - all at the expense of the poor.

There is evidence that the high-consumption lifestyle of the wealthiest 20 per cent is forcing the world’s poorest 20 per cent into the margins: forest-dwelling people in the Amazon have lost their homes to cattle ranches and mineral exploitation; land grabs in Kenya have forced people into urban slums; fishing communities from the Indus delta in Pakistan have been denied their livelihoods because the water that used to flow through the delta has been diverted to irrigate cash crops; climate change has increased the incidence of coastal flooding and forced the migration of vulnerable communities within Bangladesh.

Real progress will only be made when the systemic and structural causes of poverty and resource degradation are challenged. Based on our experience with developing country partners, Christian Aid has a few examples that demonstrate how such a transformation is possible.

Aligning multilateral development bank (MDB) spending
In 2010 the World Bank invested US$4.4 billion of development assistance in fossil fuel projects in the developing world. Christian Aid’s report Energy for Our Common Future highlights how these projects are environmentally unsustainable, primarily benefit big business and often have detrimental impacts on poor people. To align World Bank spending, as well as the investments of other MDBs, with the aims of a fair green economy requires that they realize the potential for developing countries to leapfrog to renewable energy: developing countries do not need to go through the same “dirty” industrialization path developed countries have charted in order to deliver energy and economic growth to their populations.
Energy and renewables
Kenya’s energy sector is highly dependent on large hydropower and thermal electricity generation. Due to recurrent droughts associated with climate change and the volatility of international oil prices, the country has been exposed to energy insecurity numerous times. Only 4 per cent of the rural population in Kenya is connected to the national electricity grid. Moreover, over 80 per cent of the population still uses biomass as the main source of energy. To guarantee sustainable energy supply to urban and rural Kenyans and safeguard against climate change, it is necessary to adopt or scale up to newer and cleaner energy technologies.

Kenya is endowed with significant amounts of diverse renewable energy sources, which can deliver domestic and commercial energy needs. There have been successful small and decentralized renewable energy interventions in the past that have helped in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Some of these include small hydro-electricity generation, energy from bagasse waste from sugar processing), wind-pump technology, geothermal power stations and improved biomass cook stoves. Lack of finance is one of the main barriers to realizing the renewable energy potential in Kenya. A dedicated fund to support lower-income countries to leapfrog to clean energy development would provide an impetus for their uptake.

Transparency regarding the flows of resources – both natural and financial – have the potential to improve the well-being of communities. Christian Aid partners in Peru and in the Philippines have demonstrated that the lack of transparency in the mining industry has led to devastating environmental, economic and social problems in local communities and governments.

Mining and communities
Lack of monitoring of the copper mining practices in the Philippines led to a disastrous toxic spill that decimated the local fishing stocks and the community who relied upon them; and - more than 10 years later - is still causing health problems for local residents. At the same time, NGOs and the local government believe the company had not been paying its fair share of tax; revenue which could fund the medical care of affected families, the clean up of the toxic waters and support efforts toward the creation of alternative livelihoods. (See Christian Aid’s report, Taxing Times in the Philippines.).

In Peru, a boom of poorly monitored mineral mining in the 1990s led to extreme environmental degradation. The La Oroya smelter and the surrounding areas in Peru have been declared one of the 10 most contaminated places on earth, and the social conflict that has arisen in response to mining has contributed to a breakdown within the community. Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines is charged with monitoring the sites and regulating the environmental impact on the communities, but the same agency is also, conflictingly, responsible for attracting foreign investment by lowering taxes providing attractive incentives for companies to locate there. With greater transparency regarding the financial arrangements and regulation of mining practices, the environmental and social impacts could be effectively monitored by civil society. This could ensure that the mining sector contributed to the livelihoods of the poor rather than undermining their futures. (See Christian Aid’s report, Undermining the Poor.)

Communities at the heart
Christian Aid’s work on climate adaptation and resilience has shown that directly engaging communities in climate change resilience will result in much stronger outcomes for people, the planet and the local economy. This requires that communities have the ability to engage in local and national decision making on climate change and resource planning. The wild cocoa example below is a strong example of communities delivering a profitable sector which supports both forest diversity and a more secure future for the community.

Forests and food
In Bolivia, Christian Aid partner Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado (Center for Research and Promotion of Farming Livelihoods) (CIPCA) supports indigenous Amazonian communities to expand their livelihood options, become politically engaged, invest in the future and conserve the biodiversity of the rainforest that sustains them. Sustainable wild cocoa cultivation is at the centre of these efforts. Wild cocoa trees already exist in the Southern Amazon, but to make a decent profit from the cocoa beans, communities must maintain and nurture them. Since wild cocoa is not a monocrop, communities grow a variety of other crops in and among the trees so they have food to eat and to sell.

These efforts have paid off. Communities earn significantly more from the diversified and communal use of their land. CIPCA helped negotiate a price for their cocoa beans that is approximately five times higher than that which they previously received, and their cocoa is sold widely on the national market. Additionally, by maintaining forests in this way there is greater likelihood of the government recognizing the indigenous peoples’ right to the land.

Moving toward a fair green economy requires that:
  • the post-MDG framework links the consumption of the wealthy to the resource constraints of the poor;
  • we address long-term resilience and not just short-term impact;
  • the green economy discussion moves beyond green projects or green finance (though these are of course needed) toward a transformation of global economic models to deliver long-term sustainability and greater equity;
  • global and national markets and finance and governance work together in new ways to support both green and poverty reduction objectives;
  • social attitudes toward consumption among the wealthy change to enable sustainable consumption levels for all; and
  • the interests of poor and marginalized communities be protected through greater democratic governance, with communities in developing countries having control over the natural resources on which they depend for their living, including land tenure, water access and forest management.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.