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UNRISD Conference: A Stronger Social Dimension in Green Economy Discussions is Needed

On 10-11 October, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) organized a conference on the theme: “Green Economy and Sustainable Development - Bringing Back the Social Dimension.” Drawing on the experience and knowledge of academic researchers, UN policy makers, government officials, and civil society activists, the conference aimed to provide an open venue for discussion on conceptual and operational challenges surrounding global policy actions for sustainable development and a transition towards a green economy. The discussions in particular centered on illuminating the social implications of environmental challenges and policies, and highlighting the social dimension of sustainable development. The outcomes of the discussions are expected to inform the preparatory process of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to be held in June 2012 in Brazil.

The conference featured various panel discussions, which are summarized below:

Session 1 – Competing Paradigms

This panel analyzed the underlying development paradigms that are influencing today’s decisions that aim to address the various crises the world is facing. Bob Jessop of Lancaster University explained that the global financial crisis has dominated recent policy making and turned policy makers away from seeing the broader picture, including environmental issues. In fact, as Jessop clarified, there is no one crisis, but a “triple crisis” that is multi-dimensional, multi-scalar, multi-temporal, multi-causal. According to Jessop, solutions to this crisis will need to be based within a “new economic and ecological imaginary” – one that promotes a solidarity economy; breaks with finance-dominated accumulation; and includes a strategic commitment to a no-growth development path.

Kathleen MacAfee of the San Francisco State University warned against green-economy strategies that support the commodification of nature as these strategies not only have serious implications for the value of nature, but also have a negative impact on ecosystems and the livelihood strategies of local communities. Instead, she called for more realistic and alternative climate and green economic policies that respect and build upon the present and future values of nature for local populations and the wider humanity.

Pascal van Griethuysen of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies introduced the issue of carbon trading, which some environmental economists consider a reliable market-based instrument to reduce CO2 emissions at a minimal cost. However, the issue remains controversial, especially among civil society activists, who caution against unwanted consequences, including power imbalances, social exclusion, and ecological dangers.

Payal Banerjee of Smith College and Atul Sood of Jawaharlal Nehru University explained how economic growth dynamics influence social divides and sustainable development in India, raising critical questions on the meaning of “public interest.” According to Banerjee and Sood, it seems that the idea of public interest often goes against the interest of the poor and marginalized, and makes one wonder whether the term “public interest” has become “a euphemism that stands as a proxy for the interests of national and global capital.”

Session 2 – The Challenge of Policy Coherence

This session explored the interconnections between environmental, economic, and social policies, as well as the role of social policy in attaining sustainable development and climate justice. Panellists agreed that there is a need for a better integration of social policies.

Ian Gough of the London School of Economics and Political Science tried to explain this by looking at OECD and UK policies to de-carbonize the economy within and beyond the Kyoto framework. According to Gough, carbon mitigation policies tend to create new social injustices as these policies bear more heavily on lower income groups, e.g. through rising energy costs, and support distributional inequality. Moreover, Gough argued that the Kyoto framework demonstrates fundamental limitations. Although the framework is geared to cut down production-based greenhouse gas emissions, his research findings show that production-based emissions are not necessarily the main problem in rich countries. Instead, in rich countries, indirect consumption-based emissions are recorded higher than production-based emissions. To reduce consumption-based emissions, Gough called for the systematic implementation of social policies such a those to reduce or redistribute working time. In short, by reducing or redistributing working time, not only will people’s income be reduced (or more equally divided), but also people’s ability to consume. To address the so-called “double injustice” – the phenomenon that “those groups and populations likely to be most harmed by climate change are the least responsible for causing it and have the least resources to cope with the consequences” – new forms of policy coherence should integrate the redistribution of carbon, time and income, Gough concluded.

Amalia Palma and Claudia Robles of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) referred to the situation of Latin America, where greening of the economy did not automatically lead to an improvement of the lives of the most marginalized populations. Therefore, they called for more coherent policies in the region and for effectively bridging macroeconomic and social protection policies to address the issue of inequality.

Cases of institutions that have successfully achieved environmental and social policy integration were introduced by Laura Rival of the University of Oxford. She presented the Bolsa Floresta Programme in Brazil, which aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation by combining conditional direct payments to families; grants to community associations; social development programmes; and income-generating activities; as well as the Yasuni Initiative in Ecuador, which aims to avoid carbon dioxide emissions by keeping oil in the ground and promoting forest conservation. Another example included the Araçuai Sustentåvel, a grassroots project that combats social exclusion with the dissemination of agroecological practices among poor small-scale farmers in Brazil.

Session 3 – Agency, Interests and Coalitions

The session examined the political and economic rationales as well as the power dynamics underlying existing and newly emerging environmental initiatives. Taking a political economy approach, Rocío Hiraldo López-Alonso and Thomas Tanner of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex considered the power relations that have frame REDD+ [1] policies and explained the underlying and competing worldviews (market-liberalism, institutionalism, bio-environmentalism and social greenism). In order to add a social dimension to REDD+ policies, more policy space and institutional support are needed for the less powerful voices, they argued.

Danielle Resnick and James Thurlow of the United Nations University reflected on the power dynamics underlying the green growth agenda. Based on their research on South Africa and Malawi, they argued that the green growth agenda forces developing countries to redesign their economic structures in a way comparable to structural adjustment. Explaining that such forms of adjustment have entailed measures such as cutting down subsidies for small-scale farmers, they warned that in the short term, the poorest populations and local industries will be most adversely affected. To avoid this, the international community should not only facilitate the transfer of green technologies and skills, but also protect the most vulnerable from the costs of such adjustments.

Hironobu Sano of the Federal University at Rio Grande do Norte presented an overview of the power relations among the different actors in Brazilian environmental policy processes. He found that these processes are not only characterized by policy fragmentation, but they are often dominated government representatives, excluding equal participation in decision making by other actors, including civil society. The latter has undermined the legitimacy of the decision-making process, he emphasized.

Session 4 – Community Values, Institutions and Dynamics

In this session, panellists presented various case studies of local environmental initiatives, highlighting the interaction between citizens/consumers, local institutions, and external interventions. Amy Merritt, independent consultant, and Tristan Stubbs of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shared the outcomes of their research on consumers’ and citizens’ engagement in the green economy in the UK, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil. The results pointed to the need for incentives to promote green citizenship. Local institutions have a big role to play in institutionalizing such incentives and also in overcoming the lack of trust in public institutions, they argued.

In a similar vein, Marlyne Sahakian of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies suggested that consumers/citizens have a key role to play in facilitating the transition towards a green economy. However, she cautioned that policies to encourage this role should be grounded in a context-based examination of local values and institutions, and adjusted accordingly. She supported her argument by presenting a case study of the Philippines, where informal institutions such as trusted social networks were proved to be a crucial factor for triggering transformations.

Ashok Kumbamu of the University of Alberta confirmed the importance of such trusted social networks by providing evidence from India’s agricultural sector. He explained that technological fixes and neoliberal approaches had priced many local farmers out of the market. This let to resistance and the search for alternative development paths among civil society and social movements based on solidarity and counter-hegemonic discourse. A good example, in this regard, is the Deccan Development Society which has worked towards enhancing community engagement in decision making, autonomy over resources, and sustaining indigenous knowledge across 75 villages.

Session 5 – The Social Construction of Markets

Viewing markets as a social construct, this session started by addressing the existing governance gap of markets. Samuel McGlennon of the Australian National University said that markets, and particularly markets for natural products, have been considered systemic drivers for environmental degradation. In order to make them more sustainable, it is imperative that markets are governed. However, the question remains who will govern them and what kind of governance arrangements need to be put in place.

Marc Brightman of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies presented a case study on local ownership in Suriname. He explained that local values and norms and the importance given to issues such as land ownership, time, space, and money can differ greatly from those promoted by global environmental schemes. To overcome such disparities, common interests will need to be found, keeping in mind that the benefits gained may be conceptualized differently from what the policy developers had envisioned.

Session on UN Perspectives on the Social Dimensions of the Green Economy

This session focussed on how different UN entities, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are developing policies that address the social dimensions of the green economy. Sheng Fulai, an economist at UNEP, explained that the green economy concept aims to firmly integrate the environment into economic decision making and poverty reduction strategies. He highlighted that in the long term a green economy will outperform other economies in terms of growth, job creation as well as social development. Ana Belen Sanchez introduced ILO’s Green Jobs Programme, which has employed many workers in Brazil, India, and in East and South Africa, in sectors such as waste recycling, water management, and energy-saving housing programmes. Elena Villalobos Prats from the WHO introduced the UN Task Team on the Social Dimensions of Climate Change (SDCC) involving 19 UN agencies and co-convened by the WHO, ILO, and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). The Task Team aims to support governments and partners to develop a comprehensive conceptual framework on the social dimensions of climate change and corresponding policies.

Session 6 - Agriculture and Rural Development

The various presentations of this session demonstrated how energy, food production, and environmental conservation schemes implemented as green economy initiatives have affected the livelihoods as well as social and ecological security of rural populations. The panel agreed that many policies have not sufficiently addressed the inequalities between the North and South as well as those within countries, furthering the exclusion of the most marginalized. Mairon G. Bastos Lima of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for instance, examined biofuel production in Brazil, India and Indonesia, and concluded that large agribusinesses have been the biggest beneficiaries. Local smallholder farmers were commonly disadvantaged by below-market purchasing prices, monopolies, and the breaching of contracts by supplier companies, yet could not effectively speak out their concerns due to little organizational bargaining power. He argued that “even the most successful contract farming experiences still do not envision structural changes on the value-chain,” and in this way “smallholders forever remain raw-material, and inequality structures stay in place.”

Diana Alarcón and Christina Bodouroglou of UNDESA pointed out that “food security, poverty reduction, and environmental sustainability largely depend on removing the barriers faced by small scale farmers to expand their productive capacity.” They argued that new technologies can directly improve the livelihoods of small scale farmers when adroitly exploited. In this regard, they called for more efforts to: (i) directly involve farmers in learning and innovation; (ii) ensure the participation of various actors such as governments, NGOs, multilaterals, and donors to scale up innovation and capacity building; (iii) build trust; and (iv) to reform agricultural norms and values, including the behaviour of farmers and the role of women.

Closing plenary

In the closing plenary, Peter Utting, Deputy Director of UNRISD, called for more joined-up analysis, policy, and action to expose the realities of the supra-political and economic structures that govern our lives. He stressed the importance of political economy analysis and interdisciplinary approaches valuing local ideas. On the policy dimension, he highlighted the need for macro-economic policies that are conducive to social policies – the core of the latter being social protection and redistribution. He further emphasized the need for inclusive and broad-based civil society coalitions.

Click here to view the conference booklet, containing the programme of the conference and summaries of the presentations.

Click here to access the conference papers and presentation files.