1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

  • 0
  • 0


Civil Society Engagement in the Green Economy Debate

25 Nov 2011

Civil Society Engagement in the Green Economy Debate
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.

More than just including the voices of civil society actors and coalitions, the “green economy” debate must take into account the diversity of understandings, interactions and values that characterize the struggle for a unified civil society response.

A researcher at the European Studies Centre at King’s College London, Edouard Morena specializes in civil society groups active in the field of agriculture, environment and innovative technologies.

“Green economy”1 has only recently become a central issue of discussion for civil society groups active in international environmental and sustainable development debates. The decision to make green economy one of the two core themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 – referred to as Rio+20 – has undoubtedly contributed to placing green economy high on the agenda of civil society actors.

Rio+20 represents an important moment of mobilization for civil society groups active in the environmental, development and social fields, and in particular for the emergent environmental justice movement (EJM) which was particularly active during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in December 2009. Attempts to come up with a common civil society approach and strategy toward green economy in view of Rio+20 have been hindered by the fact that there is no single, universally accepted definition of “green economy”. One only has to observe the discussions taking place in the various preparatory meetings and forums to see that the concept, although it forms a key feature of Rio+20, continues to be a source of debate.

As a result, civil society groups are faced with the arduous task of coming to grips with a concept whose defining traits, scope and utility remain to be collectively agreed upon by the various stakeholders in the sustainable development debate. During its first meeting in May 2010, the UNCSD Preparatory Committee asked the Secretariat to “seek information, inputs and contributions including through a questionnaire addressed to member States, the UN system, international financial institutions (IFIs), Major Groups and other stakeholders, on their experiences including success factors, challenges and risks with respect to the objective and themes of the Conference.”2 The Secretariat subsequently sent out a questionnaire to Major Group Organizing Partners in order to collect their views. A section of the questionnaire was specifically devoted to the topic of green economy. Out of the 33 questionnaires received, less than 10 responded to the section on green economy; two of these were presented by members of the Green Economy Coalition – the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Out of the 38 responses to a second civil society consultation (March 2011) commissioned by the Secretariat of the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP), a mere 15 explicitly referred to the green economy concept. And when they did, respondents generally referred to a broad set of pre-existing principles or analyses drawn from UN reports – in particular UNEP’s Green Economy report – and/or documents written by the Green Economy Coalition.

The frequency and nature of the references to green economy in consultations, reports, web pages and articles, as well as the varying levels and forms of participation in the UNCSD preparatory process, offer interesting insights into the diversity of approaches to the green economy question. As shown in the following section, the nature of civil society engagement in the green economy debate depends on the uses that are assigned to the concept and on whether or not agreeing on a common definition should form a pre-condition to collective engagement on the topic.

Toward a typology of actors

A preliminary analysis of civil society engagement in the green economy debate highlights two broad categories of actors. First, we find actors whose priority is to promote collectively – generally through lobbying activities – concrete green economy policies. For these actors, the importance of the green economy concept is less in the theoretical or ideological foundations that underpin its use than in its practicality for the advancement of their own – usually pre-existing – agendas. In other words, in addition to offering a common – albeit ill-defined – objective, green economy serves as an instrument to support a utilitarian/pragmatic approach. The green economy concept is seen as a useful tool for the advancement of organizational interests that often pre-dated its existence and which are not organically dependent upon it.

This approach can be witnessed in civil society campaigns that primarily focus on the transition process and concrete ways of “greening” the economy – rather than attempting to come up with a clear definition of green economy. A good example of this approach is the Green Economy Coalition, an international coalition bringing together business and labour representatives, environmental NGOs, development practitioners, think-tanks and representatives from the UNEP Green Economy Initiative. The agendas of groups taking part in the Green Economy Coalition are neither locked into the UNCSD process, nor excluded from it (many of the Coalition’s members have played an active part in the emergence and development of the green economy concept within the UN system). ITUC’s strategy, for instance, has consisted in aligning the “green economy” concept to its own approach to sustainable development – and, in particular, its Just Transition and Green and Decent Jobs agendas. This is also visible in the Green Economy Coalition’s focus on identifiable objectives that facilitate a transition toward a green economy. The coalition identifies five broad themes of change for accelerating the transition to a green economy: (i) investing in natural capital (valuing services that natural capital provides to people); (ii) investing in people; (iii) greening high-impact sectors and services; (iv) driving investment and financial flows; and (v) improving governance and measurement.

Second, we find actors that call into question the underlying intentions of those who promote green economy. Groups like Third World Network, Via Campesina or Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) present green economy as an instrument for the advancement of a corporate-led neoliberal agenda. By being solely associated with corporate interests and the neoliberal market, the green economy concept becomes a target rather than an instrument for the promotion of alternative development strategies. As Marcelo Durão explains, “we, from Via Campesina, don’t believe in ‘green economy’. The market cannot offer true solutions to the historical problems generated by the capitalist society. We believe that the solution isn’t in the market, but rather in the experiences of the peoples, based on solidarity.” 3

Martin Khor, former Director of Third World Network, has argued that in order to be fruitful, discussions about green economy should “be context specific, or specific to the framework in which it is being discussed.” He continues, “this context is the Rio+20 conference, which is a follow up to Rio 1992. The green economy is thus not an academic idea for free brainstorming.” His call echoes that of many civil society groups for a definition of green economy that strengthens the principles set out during the 1992 Rio Conference as a pre-requisite to any future concerted actions. This approach clearly differentiates itself from that of the Green Economy Coalition for which “there are as many ‘green economies’ as there are development paths, with no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.”

Challenges to civil society

This brief overview of selected civil society actors and alliances highlights what I consider three important challenges facing civil society groups when dealing with the green economy.

First, the challenge posed by the need not only to agree on a shared understanding of green economy, but to also agree on the importance of a shared definition to future civil society involvement in the UNCSD process, further complicates the task of organizing concerted civil society actions. In order to strike a balance between the various positions, certain groups have suggested a common set of principles (rather than definitions) to help guide civil society actions. In a report on Green Economy Principles, a group of NGO representatives argued that “arriving at an all-encompassing definition of a green economy may be both laborious and constraining” and therefore that “the application of broader principles may ultimately prove more helpful.” In the same document, the group came up with a list of 15 principles for a green economy which draw on a broad range of positions.4 Another proposal for a list of principles has been advanced by members of the ALOE alliance (Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and Solidarity Economy).

Second, the issue of defining green economy is closely related to the question of agreeing on what institutional set-ups should be privileged in order to implement green economy policies. Questions relating to the respective roles of the state and international financial institutions, which have been at the heart of many debates among civil society groups, will need to be addressed.

Finally, the question of technology (standards, transfers), which is closely related to the issue of development and governance, and its underlying role in a transition toward green economy, will also be a key issue of debate among civil society groups. While most groups agree on the need to apply the precautionary principle, certain groups promote a grassroots approach toward development that draws on traditional knowledge rather than technical innovation. One member of the ETC Group argues that “if Rio+20 is not to become a handy loophole for every technological wolf to assume green clothing (and funds), governments are going to need to get specific about what is and what isn’t a ‘green and just’ technology and to resurrect the precautionary principle first agreed at Rio 20 years ago. The green economy needs some trusted gatekeepers.”

To these three challenges should be added the ongoing economic and financial crisis and its potentially negative consequences on the green economy debate, as well as the outcomes of Rio+20 more generally. A constant priority for civil society groups should be to ensure that the appropriate conditions are secured for a democratic and inclusive debate on green economy. Otherwise, there is the risk that a minority of vested interests will confiscate the green economy concept.


1 See, for instance, reports by UNEP (Green Economy Report, 2011), OECD (Green Growth Strategy, 2010), UNEP and ILO (Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World, 2008)
2 www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?menu=21, page 3.
3 www.stakeholderforum.org/fileadmin/files/voicesrising.pdf, page 3.
4 The Stockholm Declaration, the Rio Declaration, the Johannesburg Declaration, the Earth Charter, the One Planet Living Principles, the Green Economy Coalition, the ITUC Just Transition principles, and the New Economics Foundation.



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