Those who watched the action (live or virtually) in Rio de Janeiro last June, when the world came together for the big summit on sustainable development, will remember that the Green Economy went from being a big idea that would unite the world and "place sustainability at the heart of economic decision-making," to being viewed with suspicion as a "controversial concept" that split the world along rich-poor lines.
The critical words were hard. Some (mostly those from the developed or wealthy countries) were calling the actions of government in Rio a "betrayal" of the dream a Green Economy because they did not explicitly tackle the issue of growth. Others (largely from developing countries) viewed the Green Economy as a kind of ruse, on the part of the rich nations, to limit the growth potential of developing countries.
The final Rio+20 outcome document is a study in diplomatic compromise: the Green Economy is "considered," "acknowledged," and "viewed," but it is not formally endorsed or adopted by the member states of the United Nations as the guiding principle that many hoped it would be.
Does that mean the Green Economy is on the way out? Hardly. The concept is continuing to work its way into the heart of policy-making around the world, just as the concept’s designers hoped.
The Rio+20 meeting should be seen not as a death knell for the Green Economy, but as a rite of passage, a tough initiation ritual for this new idea as it entered the rough-and-tumble world of international negotiations.
And: it survived the beating. In fact, the Green Economy is even riding the wave of Rio+20 deeper into precisely those regions of the world that expressed the greatest misgivings.
Consider, for example, this recent news story from Africa, "Green Economy Takes Hold in African Countries". The African Union and UNEP have moved forward with the concept, under mantle of the firm decisions taken at Rio+20 to advance the Sustainable Consumption and Production agenda.
One of the main focus areas? Water.
"Demand-side management of energy use and of water use in Uganda and Zambia have been undertaken under the [African Ten-Year Framework of the Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production.] ... Others include a water saving initiative of beverages industries in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe ..."
In the direct aftermath of the Rio+20 summit, Green Economy champions were sober, but not dispirited. "Rio+20 has helped the concept of a green economy take its first tentative steps into the world," wrote Oliver Greenfield, convenor of the Green Economy coalition. "The sustainable development community now has a mandate, albeit weak, for many of the things we wanted."
Indeed a direct textual comparison of the Rio+20 document with similar declarations ten and twenty years ago reveals that Green Economy and other previously alternative ideas have emerged, rather suddenly, as mainstream practice - recognized by a consensus of the world’s governments. Here is my own analysis of the Green Economy elements that Rio+20 recognized as the "new normal," but which were previously nowhere in sight in these international processes.
First and most important, the world's governments agreed that we are in crisis. This may seem a rather obvious point, but it is actually a breakthrough. The word "crisis" has been studiously avoided in previous such global declarations. There were concerns and worries, but no crisis. Rio+20 changed that dramatically. Now, world leaders acknowledge (in paragraph 20) that we have "multiple financial, economic, food and energy crises, which have threatened the ability of all countries, in particular developing countries, to achieve sustainable development." (One might have hoped that they would add water to that list of crises; but water does get substantial "recognition", in UN speak, and is mentioned over 30 times.)
Second, the governments in Rio recognized "the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP." This provides an enormous boost to the niche topic where I made my own start in sustainability consulting, namely, the development of sustainability indicators. This fall alone, I will attend two major congresses on the topic of creating better measures of national well-being than the GDP, one sponsored by the Austrian government, the other a global forum in India, organized by the OECD.
Third, the nations of the world declared in Rio that they "support national regulatory and policy frameworks that enable business and industry to advance sustainable development initiatives taking into account the importance of corporate social responsibility." To rephrase, they want more CSR, and more companies embracing Green Economy practices ... and they want more policies to push companies in that direction as well.
Fourth, fifth, and sixth, the world's governments endorsed (the formal word is "encouraged") a life-cycle approach, sustainable design, and extended producer responsibility for the products they make. These concepts are cornerstones of the Green Economy. They are also essential practices for assessing, avoiding, and reducing negative impacts on the world’s water resources.
The positive post-Rio news does not end there. Those who attended Rio (I did not) generally report that while the UN negotiations were dispiriting, the buzz of energy and innovation that characterized the rest of that once-a-decade global happening was exciting and inspiring. Business, education, civil society, local governments and many other sectors are not waiting around for the world’s leaders to tell them how to save the planet; they are busy working doing just that, and they are leading the way.
So, where is the Green Economy? Look around, you’ll find it popping up through the pavement, all around the world.
Alan AtKisson is president of the AtKisson Group and co-president of the International Network of Resource Information Centers, aka the "Balaton Group". He has been writing and consulting on sustainable development since 1988. See www.AtKisson.com for more info.