Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS News, June 26, 2012
The just-ended United Nations sustainable development summit in Rio de Janeiro has exposed the discomfort that many developing Asian countries have over buzz words like ‘green economy’ and ‘green growth’ in development diplomacy.
With the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the U.N. regional development arm, endorsing these concepts, the body’s 58 member-countries find themselves at odds with Asian giants like China.
This divergence became apparent as the Rio+20 summit entered its final days.
A lengthy commentary by China’s ambassador to Thailand, published in a Bangkok daily, touched on the significance of the summit in charting a new blueprint for sustainable development while avoiding terms like ‘green economy’ and ‘green growth’.
“China has not only found a path to sustainable development suitable to its national conditions, but also made positive contributions to sustainable development worldwide,” argued ambassador Guan Mu in his views that appeared in the Jun. 21 edition of ‘The Nation’.
“China is willing,” the ambassador wrote, “to strengthen cooperation and joint efforts with other parties – to make more contributions in promoting global sustainable development on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.”
In Manila, activists led by Kalikasan, a Philippines-based network of environmental groups, protested outside the United States embassy, a day before, to “denounce the green economy path to enriching corporations”.
“We, the people, who are not allowed to speak at the summit, whose rights are being trampled upon, will not be silenced,” said Lyn Pano, general secretary of the Asia Pacific Research Network, during the protest. “We will strengthen our ranks and constantly struggle (to reject the green economy).”
Despite the vocal protests the ESCAP chief’s message to participants at the Rio summit suggested that countries in Asia and the Pacific were embracing green growth as part of their development plans.
“We are pleased that green economy policies have been recognised as an important tool for sustainable development and poverty eradication,” Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of ESCAP said during a high-level meeting.
The rush by U.N. bodies – including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – to endorse green economy policies ignores concerns in Asia that it “is being used to undermine the accepted sustainable development framework,” said Shalmali Guttal, senior researcher at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank.
“There is alarm that this is an attempt by the developed countries, the world’s major polluters, to enforce ‘green protectionism’ in international trade,” she told IPS.
“Developing countries in Asia have a reason to be nervous because this is another attempt by industrialised countries to avoid the commitments they have made to help developing countries meet their development targets,” Guttal said. “U.N. bodies should listen to the people they are supposed to be helping.”
Disagreements between ESCAP and larger governments in the region over the terms “green growth” surfaced at an October 2010 ministerial meeting in Kazakhstan. A press release circulated at the end of the sixth U.N. ministerial conference on environment and development for Asia and the Pacific (MCED-6) had to be reformulated.
Four countries – China, India, Iran and Russia – objected to the words ‘green growth’ appearing prominently (including in the press release headline) as a policy that had been endorsed by Asian ministers, forcing ESCAP to issue a new press statement identifying green growth as “one approach to sustainable development.”
“This is an area that has become contentious since then,” a Bangkok-based Asian diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity. “We pay more attention to ESCAP statements to scrutinise how the words ‘green growth’ and ‘green economy’ are used.”
“Internally, most countries are doing their bit towards developing low-carbon alternatives and investing in green technology,” he explained. “But we object to being pushed to endorse a green economy in the context of sustainable development.”
ESCAP, in fact, was in the vanguard of “green growth” debate, recognising it as a sustainable development alternative in 2005. It stemmed from the MCED-5 hosted by South Korea, an emerging leader in green economics.
Three years later, following the 2008 financial crisis, others endorsed the green growth model, ranging from UNEP to the heads of the world’s 20 largest economies.
“Asian countries are facing resource constraints, the price of fuel is rising, and this is an impediment to their development,” says Rae Kwon Chung, director of ESCAP’s environment and development division. “Poverty cannot be resolved without resolving the resource constraints. The recent food and fuel crisis will have to trigger a sea change.”
“Developing countries need a different energy system than the current system,” he told IPS. “The green economy is one of the strategies how to operationalise sustainable development.”
The need for this shift, an ESCAP report titled ‘Low Carbon Green Growth Roadmap for Asia and the Pacific’ argues, was because the region uses three times as much resources as the rest of the world to produce one dollar.
Many of the region’s economies are net importers of resources and vulnerable to price hikes, notes the ESCAP document, released ahead of the Rio+20 summit.
An estimated 42 million people were pushed back into poverty in this region in 2011 as a result of oil and food price increases, adding to the 19 million people who lapsed into poverty the previous year, notes the ESCAP report.
“The region needs now to urgently shift away from business-as-usual resource-intensive strategies and embrace a growth strategy that is based on resource efficiency,” the report says.
Asia’s large developing economies, China and India, and smaller ones like Cambodia and Vietnam, were commended in the report for introducing programmes to “green their economies.”
But, the larger Asian economies raise a red flag when green growth is placed in another context – as a new, internationally-binding prescription for sustainable development in the Global South.
“This will remain a fractious issue in Asia and ESCAP sessions will reflect this in the future,” the Asian diplomat remarked. “Some governments have already said enough is enough.”