Green economics unsettles Rio+20 prospects

Separate UN conferences held in Europe last week reached very different conclusions about the optimum speed of transition to a green, low carbon world economy.

The Vienna Energy Forum 2011, whose organizers included the UN Industrial Development Organization, reached consensus that the transition should be kick-started by governments through approval of global energy targets for 2030.

By contrast, the Public Symposium 2011, organized in Geneva by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, was dominated by speakers expressing reservations about “the headlong commercial rush into new energy models.” Their concern is that the global inequality inherent in existing growth-based economics might be replicated.

A motive common to both events is the desire to influence preparations for the forthcoming “Rio+20” 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The UN has chosen the concept of the “green economy” as one of two themes for this landmark conference.

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, lent unequivocal support to the adoption of global energy goals. Addressing the Vienna Forum by video link, Ban said: “we have important goals relating to energy that we would like all governments to adopt at Rio.”

These goals seek to deliver access to electricity for every household by 2030, alongside a 40% reduction in the intensity of energy use and a global energy mix which includes 30% renewables.

In one of his first interventions since his appointment for a second term of office, the UN Secretary-General voiced his concerns about 1.5 billion people who have no access to electricity. Mr Ban was specific in advocating that this exclusion should be rectified through new low carbon technologies, making no mention of conventional power generation.

“Clean modern and affordable energy services are intimately linked with poverty alleviation,” he said. “We need nothing short of a clean energy revolution.”

This perspective was endorsed by Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, a country suffering chronic energy shortages. “Africa has no alternative to renewable energy,” he said during the opening ceremony of the Vienna Forum. “It will be pivotal to the solution of energy deficiency and of general developmental problems.”

Simmering tensions amongst developing countries over global management of the 2008 banking crisis were evident throughout the UNCTAD Symposium in Geneva. As they continue to grapple with sky-high rates of unemployment and spiralling fuel and food prices, many poorer countries consider plans for a new global green economy to be premature.

“We need a system that really takes the needs of developing countries into account – not just Wall Street, but people who don’t have a street to walk on,” warned Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD.

Whilst acknowledging the imperative of green development, speakers at the UNCTAD event were less inclined to accept the premise that low carbon economics necessarily correlates with poverty reduction. Reform should protect people as well as the planet was the message from Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, speaking by video link from Kenya.

The differing perspectives emerging from these two events reflect significant difficulties in preparations for the Rio+20 Conference. Richer and poorer countries are sharply divided over the concept of green economic development.

Unless these divisions can be reconciled in forthcoming regional preparatory meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, world leaders may choose to stay at home, potentially diminishing the status of the Rio event.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News