‘Green Economy’ Generates Trade Concerns in Run-Up to Rio+20

26 October 2011

Participants in recent regional meetings paving the way for the Rio+20 Conference next June have struggled to find agreement on the concept of a ‘green economy.' While some see a redefinition of the economy in green terms as a path towards sustainable development, others fear the concept is synonymous with green trade protectionism and conditionalities - to the point where participants at one regional meeting chose not to mention the green economy in their meeting conclusions.

The past six weeks have seen four of the Regional Preparatory meetings for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), or Rio+20, which is taking place next year in Rio de Janeiro on 4-6 June 2012. The Rio+20 Conference marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

The conference's objective is to secure renewed commitment for sustainable development and meet new and emerging challenges by focusing on two themes: the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The preparatory meeting for the Latin America and Caribbean Region took place from 7-9 September in Santiago, Chile; for the Arab Region from 16-17 October in Cairo, Egypt; for the Asia and the Pacific Region from 19-20 October in Seoul, Korea; and for the African Region from 20-25 October in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

During the four regional preparatory meetings, the challenges with regard to the green economy as a Rio+20 theme cut across regions. The definition of the green economy came under challenge from a number of national delegations, with many wanting clearer answers before committing themselves. This was largely blamed on a lack of an internationally-agreed definition of the term ‘green economy'.

Most clear, however, was the across-the-board insistence that the transition to a green economy must rule out any possible restrictions to trade.

Green economy at centre of debate in Latin America, Caribbean

At the Latin America and Caribbean meeting last month, many delegations were sceptical of the utility of the green economy as a means of promoting sustainable development. Reiterating many familiar positions and concerns, some delegates questioned whether the green economy could potentially be used to justify the imposition of trade conditionalities on the basis of environmental standards as well as protectionist measures to insulate countries' own green industries.

Some delegates specifically questioned how complementary previously-stated development goals under the WTO's Doha Round of trade talks - especially with regards to special and differential treatment for developing economies - are with the implementation of the green economy.

Sources at the meeting told Bridges that even Brazil, the host of Rio+20, distanced itself from the green economy by shifting the discussion away from an attempt to clearly define the term, choosing instead to focus on sustainable development in the hope for more agreement.

These positions were translated into the official conclusion of the meeting, where no mention was made of the green economy.

Defining a green economy

The discussion of green economy also featured towards the end of the Arab Region preparatory meeting. As a concept, delegates converged around it being a possible ‘tool' of sustainable development, rather than replacing sustainable development.

Given the recent social upheavals occurring in the region, the discussion focused on some of the causes of this unrest. Pinpointing unemployment and poverty, participants suggested that the social side of sustainable development be brought to the fore at the Rio+20 Conference.

The Arab preparatory meeting ended with a set of recommendations on the green economy. These called for a clear definition, one that should not substitute sustainable development. The meeting also came up with a series of prescriptions of what the green economy should not be. These included, in particular, not allowing the green economy to become a means to limit the right of developing countries to utilise their natural resources, nor as a tool to exempt developed countries from their commitments in relation to their developing country partners.

The engines of green growth?

The participants at the Asia and the Pacific meeting were more supportive of the green economy; according to Earth Negotiations Bulletin, "most [found] merit" with the idea. However, given the strong export interests of the region, there were many who also voiced concerns regarding potential restrictions and conditionalities.

In the ‘Seoul Outcome' of the meeting, the green economy was firmly established as one of the means to achieve sustainable development within the limitations of national circumstances and stages of development.

Side event on trade and the green economy in Africa

While delegates discussed similar issues as their counterparts in other regions during the official sessions of the preparatory meeting, they also looked more in-depth at the linkages between trade and the green economy during a side event in Addis Ababa dedicated to this topic.

Event participants examined challenges and opportunities related to the green economy in the African context, hearing both from economists and exporters that have developed green products. The participants highlighted significant opportunities for African countries in a green economy, such as exports of organic agricultural products, forestry, and other certified products. However, they also said measures such as environmental standards need to be examined further and harmonised.

Additionally, some stressed that green subsidies used as a driver of the green economy should be time-bound and implemented according to WTO rules. One of the biggest development challenges for Africa itself is the move away from exporting raw materials and moving up the value chain in a sustainable manner, participants stressed.

The side event was co-hosted by ICTSD, the UN Environment Programme, and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. ICTSD is the publisher of Bridges Weekly.

Next steps

A number of meetings remain in the coming months, with participants hoping to clear the discord surrounding the Rio+20 meeting and the themes that it will address in June 2012.

The final regional preparatory meeting will take place on 1-2 December in Switzerland for the European region.

The penultimate Intersessional Meeting of the UNCSD will then take place on 15-16 December in New York before the final Preparatory Committee Meeting in May 2012.

ICTSD reporting; "Summary of the UNSCD (Rio+20) Regional Preparatory Meeting for Asia and the Pacific: 19-20 October 2011," EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 21 October 2011; "Summary of the UNSCD (Rio+20) Arab Regional Preparatory Meeting: 16-17 October 2011," EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 19 October 2011; "Summary of the UNSCD (Rio+20) Regional Preparatory Meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean: 7-9 September 2011," EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 12 September 2011.

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