CLIMATE CHANGE OP-ED: The green economy – at best, a wishful illusion; at worst, a deceptive myth

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 25 May 2023

The claims of the green economy, together with the green economy’s long history, provide the essential backdrop to the question of why, after a gestation of 34 years, it still remains unborn.

Morné du Plessis’ recent Daily Maverick article – “The green economy is not just part of the global economy — it is all of it”, mistakes the problem for the solution. It still merits serious attention, not least because he is the CEO of WWF South Africa, which is part of the highly influential global NGO, the WWF. 

The seeming reasonableness of the proposals he offers gives rise to two immediate questions: why aren’t his green economy proposals already part of the present? Compounding the pertinence of this first question is the long history of the still-to-be realised notion of the “green economy” and its alleged multiple virtues.

He concludes his article thus: “As business and as society, we must integrate our responses to nature and climate as we build opportunities in the green economy.”

This reads as though the green economy is something new, and, as such, is just waiting for take-off. Alas for simple answers to climate change, the green economy is long past its salad days.

A brief history of the green economy

He mentions Sir Nicholas Stern’s ground-breaking review, The Economics of Climate Change, but only to show that the mitigation costs of reducing greenhouse gases are “modest relative to the cost of inaction”. He attaches no importance to the date of Stern’s Report — 2006 — even though his article is all about the prevailing “inaction” to reduce carbon emissions.

More telling still is that the “green economy” predates the 17-year-old Stern Report by 17 years. A 1989 report — Blueprint for a Green Economy — was the first to coin the term, according to a UN Report.

The authors of Blueprint, according to this UN report, published a sequel in 1991 titled Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy. The term was revived in 2008. Significantly, climate change was not the cause of this revival; the 2008 global financial crisis and related concerns about a worldwide recession were the cause.

The UN’s Environment Programme (Unep) launched its Green Economy Initiative in October 2008. This initiative championed the idea of green stimulus packages, along with large-scale public investments, to kick-start the green economy.

As part of this Initiative, Unep issued a further report titled A Global Green New Deal (GGND). Sounds familiar! The GGND, released in 2009, proposed a mix of further policy actions to stimulate economic recovery mainly via government stimulus funding to green sectors.

Later that year, the UN released an interagency statement. But, again, the main thrust of that statement — according to the UN Report from which I am drawing — was not so much climate change per se. Its focus was instead the “ambitious and effective international response to the multiple crises facing humanity based on a global green economy”.

The green economy, as a primarily economic rather than a global climate response, was further reiterated in February 2010 by the Ministers and Heads of Delegation of the Unep Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

In March 2010, the UN General Assembly gave its support to the green economy. In November 2011, Unep released another major document — the Green Economy Report. A month later, the UN Environment Management Group released its system-wide perspective on the green economy — Working Towards a Balanced and Inclusive Green Economy.

And then there’s Rio+20, of June 2012, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first conference on the environment graced by presidents and prime ministers of the nations of the globe — hence “The Earth Summit”.

The claims of the green economy, together with the green economy’s long history, provide the essential backdrop to the question of why, after a gestation of 34 years, it remains unborn.

The claims of the green economy

Although there is no internationally agreed definition, the one provided by Unep, in its Green Economy Report of 2011, remains widely used. 

The green economy, according to this definition, is “one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. It is low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive.”

Morné du Plessis’ May 2023 definition of the green economy is clearly an adaptation of the Unep original: “The green economy is about economic activity that improves human wellbeing over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks from a climate perspective or ecological scarcities from a nature perspective.” 

Rio+20 provided considerable meat to Unep’s definition. The conference’s formal declaration — titled The Future We Want — contains many specifically green economy elaborations. These few are typical:

“25. We are convinced that a green economy … should contribute to meeting key goals, in particular the priorities of poverty eradication, food security, sound water management, universal access to modern energy services, sustainable cities, management of oceans and improving resilience and disaster preparedness, as well as public health, human resource development and sustained, inclusive and equitable growth that generates employment, including for youth. It should be based on the Rio principles; in particular [it] should be people-centred and inclusive, providing opportunities and benefits for all citizens and all countries;

“29. Green economy policies … can offer win-win opportunities … to all countries, regardless of the structure of their economy and their level of development; and

“31. We note that the transformation to a green economy should be an opportunity to all countries and a threat to none.”

In his closing address to the conference, the UN’s then Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, declared: “Rio+20 has given us a solid platform to build on. Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles — renewed essential commitments — and given us new direction.”

From the vantage point of 2023, one can only wonder what Alice would have made of the Rio Wonderland.

And, yet, there is a rationale to this Rio madness.

The green economy as ideology

The green economy is, at best, a wishful illusion; at worst, a deceptive myth. 

Both the good and bad versions effectively serve two interacting and powerful functions: there is a very real economy, and it is this economy that causes and relentlessly accelerates climate change. It is indeed this very reality that creates the need for the idea of a new and different green economy to provide the fantasy that something is being done.

The green economy claims to be the opposite of everything the non-green economy is. Thus, the high-carbon reality of the non-green economy is replaced by the low-carbon claim of the green economy.

Similarly, the green economy’s abolition of poverty, social inclusiveness, and equity — to pick only three of its many social claims — replaces the reality of the firmly entrenched poverty, inequality and social exclusiveness that characterise un-green globalisation.

This sharp contrast between the desirability of the one and the unpleasantness of the other is not a coincidence. The green economy is, at best, the home of fanciful-though-noble wishes.

The proponents of the green economy sustain their illusions by usually presenting the green economy as an entirely new, stand-alone economic sector secure in its pristine greenness. It is this essential separateness from the non-green economy – a difference that is often unconscious – that transforms “green” from an adjective into a distinct thing. As a noun, it merits the use of capital letters – Green Economy – which will henceforth be used.

Morné du Plessis is unusual in his insistence on there being only one economy. The title given to his article proclaims this, as we have seen. That there isn’t a global Green Economy brings us appropriately to the point where we ask: Why is this so? Why aren’t his Green Economy propositions already an established part of the present, anywhere, let alone in South Africa?

It’s the economy, stupid! But what’s the name of the economy?

Unlike Rio’s “The Future We Want”, Morné du Plessis speaks about the present and its demands: “Economic activities are only sustainable if they have the long-term interests of society at heart. Economic growth must be decoupled from natural resource use, and negative externalities to both people and nature must be considered in any business venture.”

The only problem is that none of what he says must happen is happening. The most likely conclusion from what we have seen of this long-term failure is that the impossible is being asked of the economy.

If this isn’t the unavoidable conclusion of why economic activities have not had the interest of society at heart or why business opposes the inclusion of negative externalities, a different analysis is still awaited.

Instead of this required analysis — indeed, as a substitute for it — we have the diversion of the Anthropocene, of human-caused climate change. The scientific literature details the connection between “us” — our human activity — and today’s climate change. The science catalogues the horrors of what “we” have done to our planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

And, yet, who are the WE, the US, the People? The Anthropocene conceals fundamental aspects of the reality it defines. Human activity is indeed the cause, but are we all equally liable? Do we all, equally, everywhere on Earth since about 1750, contribute to climate change? If not, what realities are being obscured and for what reasons are they not being acknowledged?

Just asking these questions should make their answers overwhelmingly clear. 

Inequalities both in and between countries since the Industrial Revolution have now become sufficiently stark and global to make them self-evident. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in an address on International Nelson Mandela Day in 2020, observed: “While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris … Inequality defines our time.”

Why, then, is the Anthropocene not qualified to take this into account? 

Why, for instance, does Morné du Plessis feel it’s legitimate just to assert: “When one studies the atmospheric levels of CO² over 800,000 years, the sharp rise since the Industrial Revolution makes human culpability for climate change very clear. From 1960, we have seen what is known as ‘the great acceleration’. There have been massive increases in world population and related consumption.”

And: “Human activities have thrown the Earth’s natural carbon cycle out of balance.”

My answer begins with the scientists and the people who write about climate change and the green economy. They are among the privileged. I hazard most of us are reluctant to acknowledge our specific culpability. It’s considerably less challenging to get lost in the anonymity of the universal WE and US. Whether consciously or not, this helps to keep the economy in the shadows.

For those few people who, like Morné du Plessis, actually confront the economy — “all of it” — by making demands of it, it is evidently too difficult for them to accept that the economy is exceedingly good at doing the opposite of what is being demanded and, worse still, is unable to do what is needed.

Economies driven by the imperative of maximising profit for the few (which includes the diversity of all those who are the main beneficiaries of those profits) cannot allow a primary place for such “externalities” as society or fairness or even the guaranteed extinction of our species.

Those few businesspeople who attempt to take the externalities seriously are resigned to a much-reduced profit, and/or go bankrupt, or are bought out by those not squeamish about the consequences of profit maximisation.

The Industrial Revolution that began in England also heralded the birth of capitalism — the system so reluctant to be named.

The virtue of being late

Eleven years ago, the Alternative Information and Development Centre published a booklet called Green Economy: The Long Suicide. Bringing the narrative up to date begins with the then mostly predicted “extreme weather events” now being daily occurrences all over the world. South Africa has not been exempted. 

This reality has had little practical effect at the UN’s annual climate change meetings — the COPs. But it is becoming slightly less easy for the governments of the world to get away with little more than hot air.

This, combined with a world (capitalist) economy again being in a deep and prolonged crisis, is resulting in many governments rediscovering the Green Economy. Only this time, climate change is slightly more than a cynical excuse for government interventions.

The now almost normalisation of extreme weather is also overwhelming the privileged in both North America and Europe. They expect their governments to “do something”. And the governments are responding.

They are again including the green economy — and again mainly in the form of subsidies — in their package of industrial policies forced on them, this time, by Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, faltering productivity, and, probably above all, the growing economic threat of China. 

The return of government-led industrial policy reflects a growing recognition that leaving things to the (capitalist) “market” is not viable.

However, such is the state of both the economic crisis and the devastation of an overheated Earth that climate change demands nothing less than radical system change.

The first essential step to safeguarding the Earth as a home for humanity is an appropriate limiting of capital’s right to produce whatever the particular capitalists think is most likely to maximise their profit, as argued in a Daily Maverick article of two years ago. Planning is an essential part of this first step.

The green economy is not yet an actual part of any of South Africa’s incoherent industrial planning. The dire fate of electric vehicles alone testifies to this.

But there’s a positive to being a late starter: Our government’s enduring commitment to keeping coal king – and its treating us as fools in its pretence that gas is green – gives us time to better prepare ourselves and to learn from the mistakes of others.

Above all, it allows us – in all our diversities, including Morné du Plessis – to mobilise in sufficient numbers to force our government to change the economy that is causing catastrophic climate change.

We don’t have to accept the suicide foretold by the green economy. Only the poor get wet when it rains; the rest of us wear raincoats and use umbrellas. DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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