1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Bringing Back the Social? UNRISD Conference on Green Economy and Sustainable Development

7 Sep 2011

In the lead up to Rio+20, there is an upsurge of debate around "green economy", highlighting contestation around the concept as well as over the nature of any transition path. Green economy is not simply about the economy and environment; more fundamentally, it requires a deeper restructuring of economic and social processes and relations, with social dimensions critical in driving a just transition and mitigating impacts. However, the social dimensions of green economy – and sustainable development, for that matter – are not well understood or integrated in current debates.

UNRISD research is helping to address this gap by positioning social dimensions at the centre of green economy and sustainable development. This is the focus of our upcoming conference, “Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension”, to be held in Geneva on 10-11 October 2011.

While the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD 2012, or Rio+20) has identified Green Economy for Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication as a core theme, many developing country governments, civil society actors and scholars fear that certain approaches to green economy could sideline or even undermine sustainable development. Key concerns include new forms of conditionality and protectionism, the exclusion of marginalized groups, and the commodification of nature. An underlying issue is whether green economy transition will reinforce particular market-led approaches to development that have increased North-South and inter-group inequalities in recent decades. And although poverty eradication is increasingly accepted as a goal of green economy, social dimensions of development – such as equality, social and power relations, participation and the transformative role of social policy – are often downplayed in mainstream approaches centred on green growth, green jobs, green consumerism and social protection for vulnerable groups. Alternative perspectives such as those associated with climate justice, developmentalism and solidarity economy raise further questions about the potential of green economy to place inequality and the vulnerable at the centre of sustainable development. The need to reject a one-size-fits-all model in favour of different approaches across regions and at different scales has been emphasized, especially by developing countries, yet there is growing uncertainty about how to move forward in the current context of multiple global crises and natural disasters.

Unless social dimensions are addressed more centrally and comprehensively, there is a danger that efforts to connect green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication will fail. The UNRISD conference will address key challenges facing the UN system in the lead up to Rio+20: (i) identifying the links between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of green economy and sustainable development; (ii) finding ways to move beyond the multitude of issue areas and good practice examples toward understanding how these relate to transforming the social policies, institutions and relations that underpin vulnerability and inequality; and (iii) asserting the centrality of these social dimensions in a political context dominated by economic and environmental considerations.

This requires asking some tough questions. How is the notion of green economy itself, and the consideration of social dimensions, being framed by diverse social actors (e.g. states, business and civil society), and how is this shaping policy agendas and development models? What role can social policy, in association with economic and environmental policy, play in the transformation of structures, institutions and social relations that reproduce or reinforce inequality and vulnerability? And what forms of participation, contestation, coalitions, alliances and compromises are emerging—or might need to emerge—to promote green economy approaches that contribute to sustainable development and poverty eradication? The UNRISD conference will critically examine these issues, through the following thematic areas:
  • competing paradigms;
  • the challenge of policy coherence;
  • agency, interests and coalitions;
  • community values, institutions and dynamics;
  • the social construction of markets; and
  • agriculture and rural development.

The conference will provide opportunities to discuss these themes with UN agencies engaged in cutting-edge thinking on social dimensions of green economy and sustainable development, and will bring representatives of research, policy and civil society together to debate the next steps for research and action on the topic. Researchers identified through the conference call for papers will contribute short think pieces which will be published periodically on the UNRISD website until Rio+20 in June 2012. Policy reports and other publications will inform the Rio+20 preparatory process and subsequent policy discussions.