Rio+20 could engender a tipping point for the green economy

14 June 2012

Samuel Ramsden, Research Analyst, The Climate Group, comments on the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit causing a tipping point for the green economy.

At the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June this year, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will call upon top-level politicians to commit to actions that will catalyze the global transition to a green economy, alleviate poverty and create stable economic prosperity for all.

Leading up to the Summit, there has been a mixed reaction from a diverse set of stakeholders. The zero-draft, the main document structuring the dialogue, continues to lag and expand without proper agreement. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has invested heavily in the success of the event, has expressed frustration at the lack of substantial progress, recently stating that despite having “an ambitious plan for real progress” there was still need for “agreement on the tough issues." After two long sessions of negotiations comprising all 193 member states, draft documents remain controversial and unaccepted, and the dialogues sharply divided.

More than 130 heads of state have confirmed their attendance, joined by an estimated 50,000 business leaders, mayors, activists and investors[i]. However, public impressions have been negatively affected by remaining and very noticeable high-profile absentees. Many have vented frustration over the lack of movement within major nations to commit their high-level politicians to attend, especially the US president Barack Obama, whose attendance is pending. This undermines ambitions for a truly global and powerful political commitment to a greener economy and a sustainable future.

Despite the cloud looming above Rio, there is reason to be optimistic. A recent output from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skill revealed that aspirations for a green economy are much closer to being a reality than some might think. The ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) market encapsulates a wide remit of environmental, clean tech and low carbon activities.

While the UK economy as a whole went back into double-dip recession, contracting 0.3% in the first three months of this year and forcing growth forecasts to be downgraded by the national statistics body, the LCEGS market has grown 4.7% in just 12 months (£5.4 billion)[ii]. The sector is now valued at £122 billion, and is supporting nearly 1 million jobs (939,627)[iii]. Even more spectacularly, the Government expects the green economy to continue to expand, growing between 4.9% and 5.5% a year from 2011 to 2015[iv], despite coinciding forecasts of overall recession.

This pattern is being mirrored quite closely by a number of economies around the world, with the global LCEGS market expanding 3.7% to £3.3 trillion in 2010-11[v]. The biggest player in this global market was the US with £645 billion. This signals that Barack Obama’s attendance would be a wise economic move in support of a vital US market, alongside being a needed boost for the Earth Summit’s potential for political influence and environmental impact. Obama’s attendance would likely induce a flood of acceptances from other heads of state.

Influential political attendance would also give a boost to another group of stakeholders, the corporate sector. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers poll of 141 chief executives found that 70% would commit to more ambitious action if governments could make progress at the Summit, marking a considerable improvement on current corporate pledges[vi].

While we will never escape a certain level of skepticism in the run up to any high-level global policy forum, there is much reason to believe this event can engender a tipping point for the green economy. Government leaders only have to look at the figures to understand the huge potential of investing in clean technologies, goods and services. There is a sense that businesses and sub-national governments alike are already making progress where nation-states are struggling to. National leaders must counteract this impression by attending in Rio and committing to ambitious transformational action.

As a litmus test, here are my three main indicators of success:

  • A ‘hat-tip’ from the highest tier of national leadership. Attendance from the likes of Barack Obama (United States), Stephen Harper (Canada), Angela Merkel (Germany), Julia Gillard (Australia) and David Cameron (United Kingdom) would reinforce the importance of the UNSCD mandate. This clarion call for top-level participation would give the Summit a shot in the arm, as they would be joining an already impressive group of attendees including heads of state from the BRIC countries as well as France, Spain and Italy.
  • A concentrated zero-draft document with ambitious but achievable commitments. The document must be clear, concise and effective.
  • A positive narrative around the prospects for a global green economy. Emphasizing encouraging data, like the staggering growth of the LCEGS market worldwide, alongside the development of credible and achievable methods for implementing political commitments made at the Summit, can strengthen pledges and allay fears that they will become another flash in the pan.

For his updates live from Rio, you can follow Sam on Twitter @SamuelRamsden.

At Rio, we will also be running a live Q&A with BT's Niall Dunne. Follow @ClimateGroup at 4pm BRT/8pm BST on Saturday June 16 to ask questions on ICT innovation, using the hashtag #CleanRevolution.

[ii] UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skill (2012). ’Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS). Report for 2010/ 11.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

Facebook icon
Twitter icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon
Google icon