The largest United Nations’ conference to date took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from June 20th to the 22nd to discuss the world’s path toward sustainable development. The conference was a follow up to the historic 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit that was held shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, at a time that the world was radiant with hope for reform and cooperation within the international community.
At the 1992 Earth Summit, the principal concept implemented was that of “sustainable development,” a global policy initiative designed to restructure economic growth, advance social equity, and ensure environmental protections for current generations, as well as for those to come. Unfortunately, the last twenty years have not demonstrated the desired implementation of sustainable development among states. Sustainability issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, access to basic necessities, and poverty remain existent.
The Rio+20 conference presented an opportunity to reassess the commitments made two decades ago and formulate alternative solutions to pressing social and environmental problems that have become ever more urgent. While the industrialized world has become an avid supporter of the green economy, emerging economies in some Latin American countries are more skeptical of this magical formula.
Reconciling the divide that has grown around the concept of green economy will likely prove to be one of the substantial challenges mounted at the conference and implemented beyond. It is not easy for the international community to come to a consensus on what concrete goals and targets need to be set that will incorporate the natural and resource constraints facing the planet.
Concerning attendance at the Rio+20 conference, more than 130 heads of state were in attendance, among them the top leaders of China, Russia, India, Japan and Mexico. Unfortunately, this list did not include the president of the United States, Barack Obama; chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel; or prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. The disappointing lack of commitment from these major leaders strengthened the surrounding criticisms that the conference would be a failure, as numerous governments appeared first and foremost committed towards solving domestic difficulties.
However, this holds a certain sense of deception. Currently, the United States and Europe are still suffering from the global financial crisis, as they deal with huge deficits, recurring economic slumps, and currency devaluations. On the other hand, Latin America is emerging from past economic defaults and a financial dependence on the developed global economies, and is currently enjoying robust economic growth through increasingly home grown policies.
For example, the region has enjoyed major annual GDP growth rates between 2007-2011, including important economies as Argentina (9.2%), Brazil (7.5%), and Peru (8.8%). This stands in stark contrast to the slow GDP growth rates in major economies, like Germany (3.7%), the UK (2.1%) and the US (3.0%). Latin American countries’ growth has been to a great extent enabled through the strong demand of China’s manufacturing sector.
However, the realization is dawning that economic growth and resource extraction, as previously occurred in the West, has coincided with continuing socioeconomic inequalities and poverty, severe natural resource exploitation and carbon emissions that pollute and degrade the environment.
Latin America vs. the Green Economy
In response, several Latin American nations have expressed the desire to incorporate environmental awareness and protection to advance beyond the exploitative development path taken by the West. Latin America’s powerhouse and also one of the emerging economies, Brazil, is the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), of which three-quarter are caused by deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. However, climate change in the Amazon has led the country to push through its first climate change law in 2007, which allows compensation for “environmental services” including payments to farmers and river dwellers for avoiding deforestation.
Over time, developmental models such as the local Buen Vivir in Ecuador and similar Rights of Nature movements have led to policy changes in the United States, Bolivia and Ecuador. These principles are emerging as sustainable development models that do not function at the cost of the natural environment. While these upcoming models are not yet internationally implemented, they significantly deviate from the traditional neo-liberal development model, and therefore may reiterate the traditional North-South divide that was already prevalent at the first Rio conference. Moreover, the Rio+20 conference has two major themes, with one being the promotion of a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The second complements the first, being the creation of an institutional framework for sustainable development.
Concerning Latin America, the green economy’s purpose, as stated in a paper prepared by the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Department of the Latin America and Caribbean Region (LCSSD), is to serve as a growth ledger, with consumption and production at the heart of creating viable infrastructure and urban services, as well as the productivity of rural areas. Therefore, this initiative is very much a market-oriented approach, where a country’s success is measured in terms of economic growth and progress, a process that demands constant dependence on the continent’s natural resources, namely oil.
Living Well according to ALBA
This concept of the green economy is being extensively debated by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a coalition extending to eight countries within Latin America. Bolivia, an ALBA member, opposes the green economy on moral grounds because it assigns land resources into environmental services with a monetary value for market exchange. The ALBA nations have presented an alternative development model founded on the indigenous concept of “Living Well/Good Life.” This model aims to establish a new humanist order in which human beings live equitably and in harmony with the protected ecosystems that sustain life.
Moreover, Venezuela, another member of ALBA, opposes the notion of Green Economy because it only serves in the interest of the capitalist system that will promote further inequalities, as well as have a detrimental impact on ecosystems. The government of Hugo Chavez even argues that the green economy’s goal is to strengthen the dependence of the countries of the Global South to the technology of the Global North, indicating a level of distrust between the two sets of actors.
Even after the Rio conference, a solid agreement concerning a future outlook is still vital and requires concessions from all actors involved to merge highly diverging viewpoints into a workable solution. The models brought forth by the ALBA nations deviate significantly from the current capitalist system and signal a strong desire for change. Amidst current global pressures, the implementation of an alternative mechanism is still necessary. Perhaps even with resistance from the North, the South could lay the foundations of a developmental model that is sustainable in the future to halt patterns of exploitation and mitigate increasing consumption of resources.
While the ideas are circulating, their implementation will require a global commitment that will be met with resistance because of the necessity of deviating from the models currently favored by the global North. History has constantly been marked by change, reflecting dynamism in models where one emerges as others slowly fade.