Green economy – learning from the Caribbean

Steve Bass's picture
Insight by 
Steve Bass
04 March 2011

Since the recent global financial crises, the phrase ‘green economy’ has appeared liberally in newspaper headlines, and politicians’ and CEOs’ promises. They usually mean ‘low-carbon economy’, the idea of shifting energy and infrastructure towards clean, high-tech systems. Green economy is seen as an answer to financial problems – G20 stimulus packages included ‘green’ components, hoping to improve national competitiveness and create new jobs through green technology, and wean economies off insecure and expensive fossil fuels. And it is seen as a practical way to supplement climate change conventions – you don’t need an international agreement to change economic practices that cause climate change. All very good news for Danish wind farm installers, Japanese hybrid car manufacturers, and Chinese solar panel factories. But what does the green economy mean for the developing world?

Rio 2012, the 20-year anniversary of the Earth Summit, will deliberate on green economy as one of two main themes. Is its elevation to UN negotiating table also good news? Many developing countries are worried that it appears to be yet another Northern consensus which will lead to overly high production standards and green protectionism. Why can’t green economy also mean ‘high-carbon’ landscapes, sustaining livelihoods and industries based on wise use of biodiversity and ecosystems? Can it foster the resource efficiency and innovation inherent in the informal sector, and not just tinker with big banks and corporations?

Just in time, UNEP’s Green Economy Report usefully broadens the debate on what a green economy might be for many countries. We hope the Report will be taken really seriously, since major changes are needed soon. We cannot rely on the same paradigm – economic growth at all costs, stealing from the future – to solve the very problems that this paradigm creates: poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation.

But serious reflection on UNEP’s Green Economy Report cannot repeat the common mistake of international bureaucracies, i.e. jumping straight to countries preparing ‘national plans’ based on a global report. This tends to both impose external ideas and miss the real (local) drivers of change.

Instead, every country needs the space to reflect on what green economy means (you don’t get very far until you explore it for a particular economy), what is already in place that can be ‘scaled up’, and what constraints are in the way.

The Green Economy Coalition aims to help create that space. I was lucky to be present last month at the Caribbean dialogue on green economy, run by the University of the West Indies and Caribbean Natural Resources Institute. An eclectic mix of government ministers, academics, community leaders and business associations rightly kept the few international observers in check – part of the problem being that small countries suffer often overwhelming outside economic, cultural and environmental influence. So we were able to learn that Caribbean green economies are about actively building resilience, including

  • Regional integration, e.g. a Caribbean single market enabling free movement of labour and capital, and trade agreements built on environmental and labour standards and that do not undermine local production for local consumption
  • Disaster preparedness and business continuity planning – including at the micro-enterprise level
  • Fixing the housing industry to shift to low-energy and resource efficiency, and resilient buildings
  • Taking industries higher up the value chain through better use of biodiversity and culture
  • Realising real value from links with Caribbean diaspora all over the world e.g. through food market chains
  • Recognising good natural resource management by local communities and assuring the rights and support to sustain livelihoods

Economics is still the principal language of policy, and so participants’ intention to line up leading Caribbean economists to articulate green economy is promising. But perhaps the strongest message is that if Caribbean people are to get an economy that serves them and that thrives within ecological limits, what we currently perceive as a matter of economic governance and technology, will turn out to be a matter of social and cultural movement -
perhaps of the same strength and scope as those through which Caribbean peoples have affirmed their identity and independence throughout modern history.