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Scientific community must do more to explain ‘green economy,’ expert says

“We’re not trying to bring the entire world to paradise, but to avoid the whole world going to hell.”
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Shifting to a green economy will not be a panacea, nor will it happen overnight, warn experts.
Shifting to a green economy will not be a panacea, nor will it happen overnight, warn experts.

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The main barrier to a ‘green economy’? Mindsets, according to a leading environmental economist.

A green economy is one that aims for sustainable development while minimizing environmental degradation—and yet despite its ‘win-win’ aims, it has been slow to gain uptake.

“The barrier is the mindset,” says Pushpam Kumar, Chief of the Ecosystem Services Economics Unit at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

“There are barriers in the sense that sometimes people don’t understand the concept, they think, Oh, this is another green constraint, or green lobby or advocacy group talking about something obscure—so the problem lies with us, the scientific community, in that we have not been able to explain the opportunities which this concept offers,” Kumar said in an interview with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

While confident that such barriers can be overcome, a shift to a green economy will not be a panacea, nor will it happen overnight, Kumar said.

“I won’t say that in 5 years, 10 years, everything is going to be green and rosy, no. But certainly I think we can transform society so that some of the catastrophic impacts can be avoided.”

Kumar is one of six panelists sharing ‘big ideas’ at the Colloquium on Forests and Climate: New Thinking for Transformational Change in New York on 24 September. The Colloquium is jointly organized by CIFOR and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. An edited transcript of Kumar’s interview with CIFOR follows.

Q: What is the ‘big idea’ you’ll be discussing at the event?

A: I’m going to talk about how we need to enhance the capacity of humans to transform society towards a ‘green economy.’

The ‘green economy’ is a kind of approach, a set of tools that have the potential bring society on track for sustainability.

Protecting the environment must involve getting the economics right, and to go beyond the economics to include the disciplines, sciences and institutions on which good economics rest. The green economy is an attempt to align the wheels of economy and nature.

Q: Can you give some examples of some of these tools you’re talking about?

A: The tools and approaches I am talking about are new investment opportunities, identifying ecological thresholds, and identifying the synergies of economic activities and conservation activities.

The rock-bottom fact though is that wherever we have tried to convey it effectively, and explain it, and identify the actions they need to act upon—they have done it!

Pushpam Kumar

The backbone of my discussion will be about economic evaluations—capturing them, demonstrating them, and mainstreaming them in development decisions for a more just and efficient allocation of resources.

It’s also about identifying, acknowledging and organizing complexities. They could be in form of trade-offs: for example, higher food production could have an adverse impact on the biophysical aspects of agriculture, in terms of soil salinity, waterlogging, mono-cropping, pesticides. So how can we enhance food production to cater to the needs of 7 billion-plus people, with minimum impact on the ground water, surface water and topsoil? Those are the trade-offs, and we need to find pathways to resolve those them.

Q: What are some of the ways we can do that—is it possible?

A: Yes, it is possible. The possibility will have different prospects depending on the time scale you are looking at. In the short term, you will probably not have much chance to succeed. But in the medium to long term, I think those possibilities can be realized.

Q: And how can this idea of the ‘green economy’ help us to do that?

A: I’ll be pragmatic here: I won’t say that in 5 years, 10 years, everything is going to be green and rosy, no. But certainly I think we can transform society so that some of the catastrophic impacts can be avoided.

I have no illusions that we are going to achieve the green economy in every sense in the short term. But certainly, as one of our former UN Secretaries General Dag Hammarskjöld used to say—although he was talking in a different context— “We’re not trying to bring the entire world to paradise, but to avoid the whole world going to hell.”

Q: And what would a green economy look like?

A: Compared with now, there would be fewer greenhouse gas emissions, greater diffusion of technology, greater adoption of green technology, sustainable and job-friendly growth, greater equity and greater social harmony. This will help equip us to better adapt to climate change and halt the pace of biodiversity loss.

Q: If it has all these benefits, why is it so hard to make it happen then? What are the barriers?

A: The barrier is the mindset. There are barriers in the sense that sometimes people don’t understand the concept, they think, Oh, this is another green constraint, or green lobby or advocacy group talking about something obscure—so the problem lies with us, the scientific community, in that we have not been able to explain the opportunities which this concept offers.

Secondly, even if people understand, many countries still need a huge amount of capacity-building to implement these ideas, to act on them. So this is another constraint preventing us from achieving the goals of the green economy.

Third, there’s also a kind of political economy of growth and development right now across the world since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. People don’t want to experiment with new ideas when they’re struggling with growth, jobs, trade, and investment. They are receptive, but personally in my experience dealing with the governments, they are somewhat reluctant.

The rock-bottom fact though is that wherever we have tried to convey it effectively, and explain it, and identify the actions they need to act upon—they have done it! And they have shown very promising

Q: Where do forests come in?

A: Forests are certainly important as one of the major examples of natural capital, which provides many tangible and intangible benefits. Not just timber or logwood or non-timber forest products, but also carbon and watersheds. Both these services are not captured in countries’ development policies. There is awareness, but still it is not being factored into the development decisions of the respective ministries in countries where forests are dominant.

There is also an urgent need to change the basic compass of progress measurement: Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. Conventional accounting of income in the countries has not recognized the contribution of nature. In many countries especially in the Global South, poor people depend on common pool resources that GDP does not account for. Any poverty alleviation program based on these narrow indicators is bound to be inefficient.

Valuation and accounting are important; but we also need to restructure the macro-economy as well and embrace a different model—and that is where the challenge lies, in terms of capacity, in terms of understanding, and in providing compelling examples.

Q: What kinds of macro-economic adjustments?

A: When I talk about policy I’m not thinking about environmental policy but trade policies, export-import policies, exchange rate policies, interest rate policies.

The environmental constituency still is not very powerful. In any country, and globally, who are the most powerful? Industries, agriculture, banking, finance, insurance—they play in billion, trillion dollars every month. They are people who create drivers of change.

Those who export beef, for example, can cause deforestation. Or the export of aquaculture can cause water pollution and loss of biodiversity. But those links are unclear, people don’t understand that. We have to make these links explicit, while redesigning the structure of the macro-economy.

We have a goods market, a money market, a credit market—but where is the environmental market? We have supply and demand for environmental resources – it could be a good way to look at the economy in a more comprehensive and balanced manner than just ignoring the environment and dealing with it on the margins.

Q: Why is it important to have events like this Colloquium where we discuss these issues?

A: This is a unique and opportune moment to come out with our argument and make those that are in New York for the Climate Summit aware of the tools that exist—which are known to researchers, but have not gone in a convincing way to the policy makers who have the discretion and opportunity to influence the happening on the ground—and that’s why this event is very important.

Q: When people leave the event, what ideas do you want them to be thinking about?

A: I would expect that if they can take one or two tools from our talk and if they can be motivated to pilot them in their own countries, if they are not doing it already.

Even if they are losing something in the short term, we have to tell them for your children, for your grandchildren, and for the future, this is worth doing.

If they can take one or two ideas—I won’t be very ambitious!—just one or two ideas, then I will feel that I have done my job.

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