earth2Last month, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Rio+20 conference (otherwise known as the “United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development”). The event was billed as the follow-up to 1992′s UN “Earth Summit”, when over one hundred heads of state and government (along with assorted NGOs, celebrities and representatives of civil society) met in Rio to discuss the environment. The results of this year’s conference, however, have been criticised as “disappointing“, with many blaming the global economic crisis for pushing the environment down the international policy agenda.

The conference produced a 49-page non-binding document called “The Future We Want” (PDF), which supports (amongst other things) the green economy, renewable energy, protection of the oceans and seas and action on securing clean and sustainable water supplies. Critics point out that the document lacks hard timetables or targets, and fear that implementation will be difficult to enforce whilst governments are focusing on growing their economies at all costs.

Earlier this year, Debating Europe attended the Green Week conference in Brussels; a four-day event that, this year, had the theme of water security. We had the opportunity to talk to a series of academics and experts on the topic of water and on the environment more generally. We began by talking to Dr. Seetharam Kallidaikurichi, Director of the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

We asked him to respond to a comment from Peter, who argued:

Our economy is geared to achieving growth and, in times of recession, the economic policy is all about returning to growth. The financial crisis is an opportunity for some basic rethinking about what the economy is for, and how, through some fundamental restructuring of our financial system, we can safeguard our economic stability in the future, as well as achieving wider social and environmental benefits.

Is Peter right? Rather than focusing on returning the European economy to growth, is now the time for a paradigm shift to a different development model?

We put the same question to Monica Scatasta, Deputy Economic Adviser, Water & Waste Management Division, European Investment Bank (EIB). Here’s her response:

Next, Tom left a comment arguing that part of the problem is how we measure success. GDP is, according to Tom, the wrong way to measure progress; there are other factors, such as social and environmental costs, that should be measured as well. In the context of water, could the problem be that we aren’t attaching sufficient “value” to our water resources? We put Tom’s question to Saleem H. Ali, Director for the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland, and asked him to respond.

Finally, we had a comment come in from EU blogger and Debating Europe commenter Protesilaos, who wrote that the “crisis of the euro, should not dominate political talk, marginalizing the major challenges humanity will be facing in the upcoming years. A viable climate is much more important in the long-run than a functional monetary system.” We asked John Kuylenstierna, Incoming Executive Director, Stockholm Environment Institute, to react to this one.

What do YOU think? Is the eurozone crisis an opportunity to prioritise a different model of development, with a focus on sustainability over growth? Or is it naïve to think that people will accept lower growth, even if it might be better for the environment? Is “green growth” achievable, or is it ignoring the constraints of finite resources? Let us know YOUR thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.


16 comments Post a commentComment


  1. Mona Al Qahtani

    Possibly. The continuous decline of the global economy is worrisome because it concerns more than our money. Economy is not a neutral network of industries, trade, and banking. More than anything it reflects our own ambitions and desires, our relations and the direction to which we are headed. Indeed, Eurozone had accomplished what otherwise could not have been, having highlighted its economic crisis to a problem in society- namely in human relations.

    Europe’s main issue is in being too loosely connected in their “economic union.” They have no proven way of debating, adopting and then forcing solutions through lawful implementation, a strategy based on a consensus of views that will serve the general population to its best and fullest interests.

    They have created a system of government that is not in balance with its many seemingly autonomous states. Those individual countries are in reality highly interconnected through the life blood of any society, its daily commerce. They must therefore work in unison to accomplish any long term goal of sustainability, in order to sustain the region’s population as a whole, to be an economically viable, healthy society, by forming a strong central government based on mutually accepted laws that are agreed upon to truly be representative of the interpersonal relationships that bind them and all humanity.

    There must be a grass roots, peaceful initiatives, to educate the population and its governments to use the continent’s individual and cultural egoisms, as a tool for developing and instilling a general willingness and compassion for the integral human that lives within the “European Citizen.” By uniting their governments into one, the interests of the European, instead of the interests of the self-centred national, will be more efficiently served and satisfied with a deeper connection in the relationships between its inhabitants. This will then dramatically improve all aspects of their lives, promoting and inspiring creative solutions to their social and economic problems, in their political issues and more importantly, in the relationships within the basic units of all society.

    At times it feels as though A Ghost is roaming Europe, and intends to for a little while longer, what if we misinterpreted the track in which it’s attempting to lead us to ?

  2. Ozcan

    We have global problems and global institutions but we do not have one global interest. Take Kyoto for instance great initiative but poor results.

    • david Coelho

      Ozcan this is a great example you just gave but we have more.

  3. Christos Mouzeviris

    I would say use this crisis to reform European economy… Even if we would like to focus on other things, without money how could we? Just to run a campaign or an advertisement to protect the environment needs money..With no money, no campaign. So sort the economy and the best way to combine it with saving planet Earth and blah blah blah, is to kick-start a new kind of “greener” economic industries…me thinks anyway..

    • Nathielly

      Earth’s living thngis make up a single functional system’ then take the unwonted step of putting man outside and in a unique relationship with that system (unconscious reasoning based on Abrahamic religion maybe). What if the recession is simply Gaia modifying one of her sub-systems that was running away a bit?

  4. mona_alq

    Thank you for this interesting article!! It really is beginning to feel as if a Ghost is roaming Europe. doesn’t it?

    In the past, the world was an aggregate of isolated parts, but as the network of global connections grew stronger, we found ourselves in a new, volatile, unpredictable World. The Eurozone crisis, where Germany and France were having to pay for bailouts and recuse programs of the PIIGS is one of many example of economic interdependence. In the hopes to go back to doing business as usual, where growth had become the main running engine and the only model to go by regardless of its consequences.

    Are we focusing too much on economy? Possibly. Economy is not a neutral network of industries, trade, and banking. More than anything it reflects our own ambitions and desires, our relations and the direction to which we are headed. Indeed, Eurozone had accomplished what otherwise could not have been, having highlighted its economic crisis to a problem in society- namely in human relations.

    Europe’s main issue is in being too loosely connected in their “economic union.” They have no proven way of debating, adopting and then forcing solutions through lawful implementation, a strategy based on a consensus of views that will serve the general population to its best and fullest interests.

    They have created a system of government that is not in balance with its many seemingly autonomous states. Those individual countries are in reality highly interconnected through the life blood of any society, its daily commerce. They must therefore work in unison to accomplish any long term goal of sustainability, in order to sustain the region’s population as a whole, to be an economically viable, healthy society, by forming a strong central government based on mutually accepted laws that are agreed upon to truly be representative of the interpersonal relationships that bind them and all humanity.

    There must be a grass roots, peaceful initiatives, to educate the population and its governments to use the continent’s individual and cultural egoisms, as a tool for developing and instilling a general willingness and compassion for the integral human that lives within the “European Citizen.” By uniting their governments into one, the interests of the European, instead of the interests of the self-centred national, will be more efficiently served and satisfied with a deeper connection in the relationships between its inhabitants. This will then dramatically improve all aspects of their lives, promoting and inspiring creative solutions to their social and economic problems, in their political issues and more importantly, in the relationships within the basic units of all society.

    Maybe that silent Ghost still intend in roaming Europe for a little while longer, what if we misinterpreted the track in which it’s attempting to lead us to ?

  5. Nikolai Holmov

    The problem is economics has redefined itself and concentrated upon the fiscal and financial matters primarily whereas when I was taught economics society and social well-being were also part of the remit.

    It now seems the subject is dominated by monetary and fiscal policy, the pendulum then swings to politics but only when the politics are threatened by social upheaval do economists pay any attention to society.

    It is as though society is an afterthought unless it in some way threatens the stability of the other seemingly more dominant issues economists are more ready to think about.

    As for the rush to return to growth, however it may come, would more haste and less speed not seem appropriate if we are going to avoid the next bubble or encouraging nefarious activities to get us there at break-neck speed?

    As an example, which is more preferable in the long run? A solid and real 2% growth rate or a hyper-inflated, dangerously structured 6%?

    What exactly do we want an economic model to produce? Rapid unsustainable and nefariously administered growth? Ever increasing standards and personal wealth? Personal happiness, national happiness, regional happiness etc? Dependable but slow growth? World dominance? Regional dominance? Stability? Self-esteem (personal, national, regional)?

    In rushing to return to where we once were, have we asked ourselves why we are trying to do so or if societies priorities maybe actually slightly different to what the current model will produce going forwards?

  6. Thor

    The question should rather be. “Are we afraid of a little competition from China?” og “Should we take the easy way out and give up?”. We are facing severe competition from China. In my country the environmental laws are severe as compared to China and India, thus products manufactured in Denmark are more expensive. The EU should introduce a environmental tax to even out the extra cost clean manufacturing demands. Global health of our ecology would also benefit from such a tax by forcing contries to manufacture with environmental awareness.

  7. Giovanni Macchia

    My opinion is that the economic growth and the sustainability are not in contrast. The real challenge is to use the sustainability as a vehicle for the economic growth. Serious action plans at EU level and worldwide are needed to allow a sustainable economic growth and to support the emerging economies (but nont only them) in “thinking sustainable”. EU is lacking in that sense because there is no a serious leadership thinking about the future of our economy. Indeed, when the BCE President Mario Draghi asked, in one of their meetings, to the government representative to know their vision of Europe in 10 years, nobody provided a clear and strategic answer. Nothing can happen with this kind of political leadership, (may be the production of some documents asking for emission reduction or 20-20-20 by 2020, when the climate will be already in a cut-off date). Therefore, the problem is twofold: political and economic. I will not discuss here of the first aspect, because is out of the scope of this post (may be we need to select the politicians and participate more than in the past). Action plans for a sustainable economy are possible in sectors as transportation, energy supply, residential & commercial building, industry, forestry, agriculture and waste.
    A sustainable growth of the transportation sector, accounted in 2004 for 13.5% of the total greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions, can occur if the governments provide incentives to industries, universities and research centers, to encourage the research on and usage, at industrial level, of the technologies to reduce the vehicle loads, of the solar technologies as a “fuel”. More can be done at government level to develop policies to maximize the use of public transport and non motorized transport, providing also funds to the developing countries (in the framework of the funds decided in the last INSERIRE NOME) to adopt this policy.
    A sustainable growth of the energy supply sector, which was accounted in 2004 for 25.9% of the global GHG emissions, is possible with the governments providing incentive mechanisms for the substitution of power plants emitting GHGs with power plants based on renewable energy source (i.e. solar photovoltaic, thermal solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass). The government should also invest in the implementation of and research on grids. International financial institutions (e.g. IMF) shall encourage investments among nations to create global agreements to share and use grid-based systems.
    A sustainable growth is also possible in the commercial and residential building sector, which accounted in 2004 for the 7.9% of the global GHG emissions, with the governments investing in information campaigns for the education of the end-users to raise their awareness about energy-efficiency and GHGs emission cut opportunities. The governments should invest in training the building sector operators (e.g. architects, engineers, interior designers, plumbers and electricians) to raise their awareness about energy-efficiency and GHGs emission cuts. Technical schools and universities should also address those issues. The governments should provide more incentives to end-users for the usage of GHGs low-emission/high-efficiency equipments (e.g. appliances, lighting, etc) and the installation of equipment/small plants based on renewable energy sources. Finally, the governments should also provide incentives to industries and universities for the R&D on and usage, at industrial level, of GHGs low emission equipment. Technology transfers to developing countries shall be foreseen by developed countries. In general, developing countries should be helped with technological assistance from the developed countries.
    A sustainable growth is possible in the industry sector, which accounted in 2004 for 19.4% of the global GHGs emissions (including electricity power supply as end-use). The governments should apply the same actions for the energy supply sector to the industry sector, since the majority of the emissions are energy related. In addition, the governments should provide incentive mechanisms for the research on and usage of technologies to cut the GHGs emissions from non-energy uses of fossil fuels (e.g., production of petrochemicals), non-fossil fuel sources (e.g. cement manufacture) and of non-CO2 gases.
    A sustainable growth is possible and needed in the forestry sector, where the deforestation and bad harvesting and forest management practices accounted for a 17.4% of contribution to the GHGs. The governments should forbid entities (e.g. industry and population) to perform not sustainable deforestation activities (i.e. afforestation and reforestation activities shall compensate the CO2 emissions of the deforestation activities). In addition, the governments should provide incentive mechanisms (including investment in research and development) to improve the forest management and harvest practices with the goal to increase carbon storage.

    A sustainable growth is possible in the agriculture sector, which accounted, in 2004, for the 13.5% of the global GHGs emissions. The governments should develop incentive mechanisms to allow a more efficient management of carbon and nitrogen flows in agricultural ecosystems. In addition, the governments should invest in research of and provide incentives for management practices aimed to withdraw CO2. The governments should also provide investments and incentive mechanisms to allow that crops and residues from agricultural lands can be used as a source of fuel, either directly or after conversion. The governments could develop policies (e.g. incentives, laws, research in better management practices, etc) to forestall the cultivation of new lands now under forest, grassland or other non-agricultural vegetation. Finally, the governments shall invest in research on and provide incentives for improved nutrition of ruminants and better management of paddy rice, since this will reduce the CH4 emissions

    A sustainable growth is definitely possible in the waste sector, accounted in 2004 for the 2.8% of the global GHGs emissions. The governments should perform policies to reach a 100% percentage of waste recycling by, for example, 2017. After that date, the governments shall forbid the use of landfill in the waste management cycle. The governments should invest in active landfill gas extraction system. They should also invest in research on and in usage of technologies for wastewater management, collection, treatment, re-use and disposal. The governments should also invest in communications to create awareness in the citizens about the recycle issues. Finally, the governments should develop policies and incentive mechanisms to maximize the recycle of paper.

    All the proposed actions can create jobs and economic growth in line with a sustainable growth. Political actions are needed, however, to perform those actions. Therefore, the political leadership problem is still valid.

    I hope that this “manifesto” of economic actions for a sustainable growth convinced you that economic growth and sustainable growth can coexist.

  8. Peter Schellinck

    “Inequality across countries”, as Dr. Kallidaikurichi puts it, I fully agree and that is why our EU commission and the OECD should make a clear and peoples’ friendly inventory of divergence. When plotting country by country we can then insist that neighboring governments address the gaps together and find a leveling mechanism, whether labor, education or manufacturing exchange.

    The Eurozone crisis is an opportunity to design a different model of development with the focus on resilience and equality. Within the EU Poland has to grow at least 5% per annum for the next 10 years to catch up with neighboring Germany, providing the latter remains with a 0% growth. Globally Europe doesn’t need to grow more then 2% per annum to remain prosperous. On the one hand there is a limit to how much we can consume and on the global side we would become an alien society if we would be retaining substantial growth.

    Our societal model has to set up basic criteria of minimum required and available consumables for people to have a quality life and how to secure it across boarders. By securing a minimum for all there will be still ample motivation to enhance desires. However we must avoid a greed spiral, as was the case with the banks. They have seriously damaged our financial and social model and must be accounted for!

    Growth must be driven by social inclusion and thus embrace green growth. Sustainable prosperity without growth is possible through innovation. Hence, maybe we should abandon degrees and focus just on jobs. After all “ three out five” of the current jobs are not even lectured at any educational institution. Therefor addressing society progress by adopting a more natural and logic approach to education might be beneficial in this growth dilemma.

  9. kallistratos dionelis

    The question is half.
    “Are we focusing too much on the economy or we are not focusing too much on the society”?

    This is the complete question to be raised.
    And -if finally we get a full answer to the new complete question-, then we should ask again: “which of the above two comes first?

  10. Sam

    Well, there are several low carobn energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, low-head hydro, and nuclear. Each has their own limitations and controversy, but together they may do the trick.

  11. Chris

    nuclear energy (which, dtbeaably, is also far from clean) and not-clean coal.Here’s more on nuclear’s financial risk from our friend Timothy Hurst of ecopolitology:Greenpeace’s Phil Radford points out that the

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