Highs and lows of the transition to an inclusive green economy

Paul Steele reflects on the highs and lows emerging from this week's UN PAGE conference in Berlin, as leaders in sustainable development gathered to tackle what it takes for a global shift to economies that are fair and green.

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Paul Steele
Paul Steele is chief economist at IIED
31 March 2017
A migrant bamboo farmer harvests bamboo shoots in Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. The UN PAGE conference was told China is reskilling one million workers from forestry into other industries (Photo: Nick Hogarth/CIFOR, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

A migrant bamboo farmer harvests bamboo shoots in Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. The UN PAGE conference was told China is reskilling one million workers from forestry into other industries (Photo: Nick Hogarth/CIFOR, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The transition towards an inclusive green economy looks very different depending on the lens you're looking through. This became clear as ministers, chief executive officers (CEOs), United Nations' agencies and sustainable development experts set out their contrasting perspectives at the second global forum on green economy this week.

The highs… 

Opening the conference, Erik Solheim, new head of the UN Environment Programme, extolled India and China for driving forward a green economy of the future, while reducing poverty as they work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both are large, booming economies with growing power – and they want to inherit a fair and green world as their power and influence rises.

But there are other frontrunners. United Arab Emirates has set itself targets for an ambitious low carbon future led by some of its more enlightened political leaders.

Germany is also keen to stay ahead of the curve; not only has it placed the SDGs at the heart of its international development policies, the goals are also at the core of its domestic political agenda. Implementing the SDGs is spearheaded by the chancellor's office with the personal backing of Angela Merkel herself – the most powerful person in Europe.

Pushing ahead to achieve the goals, Germany has introduced radical energy policies to make renewables a leading source of power within a decade. And in welcoming more than a million migrants from the war in Syria it reinforced its commitment to the SDGs.

Meanwhile, its public leadership is matched by ambition in the private sector: the CEO of Deutsche Post, for example, one of the world's largest logistical companies, has committed to zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Africa is also keeping pace, demonstrating its own ambitions to be part of a cleaner, greener future by actively engaging with the UN PAGE agenda.

…and the lows

But some dark clouds loom and recent political shifts are holding back the transformation we need.

The governments of the US, UK and France were conspicuous by their absence. Climate and development has fallen to the bottom of the pile for the Trump administration, while the UK government is preoccupied by Brexit. The French political establishment, meanwhile, faces its own knife-edge battle with right-wing populism ahead of next month's presidential elections.

In an angry and emotional speech, renowned economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs pilloried the US election as being a victory for money and corruption – and attacked the government's intention to revive fossil fuel projects. Sach's position may be valid, but he showed little empathy for the coal miners who have lost their livelihoods in the transition to a cleaner future, or those who have lost jobs to factory workers in China and elsewhere.

But he did provide a vital wake-up call: we cannot be complacent – we only have a decade to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate change.

Lessons to take forward

The conference highlighted three lessons for the transition to an inclusive economy:

  • Leadership is key: this is shown most visibly by Germany, followed closely by the engineers in the Chinese Politburo. Private sector and civil society also showed the power of entrepreneurial spirit
  • The market will work if governments promote it as an effective policy instrument: investment in rsearch and development and large public demand has forced renewables prices to fall exponentially every year, and
  • International partnerships maximise impact: PAGE is itself a UN partnership, supported by the Green Economy Coalition civil society initiative and the Green Growth Knowledge Platform. These partnerships are underpinned by an inclusive approach to the green economy transition we need.

Challenges ahead

But three major challenges remain:

  • Moving to the mainstream: this PAGE conference was still largely dominated by environment ministers with their finance counterparts notably absent. The UN was well represented, unlike the World Bank with only one delegate and the International Monetary Fund with none at all. When do we drop the label 'green economy' and move to simply 'inclusive economies – where the green is self-evident?    
  • Natural capital loss remains overlooked: the conference focused almost entirely on climate change mitigation with little mention of our eroding natural capital – life on land and life in the water. How do we address this loss of natural capital which is, in many ways, less tractable than climate mitigation?
  • Keeping the voices of poor women and men at front and centre: poorer men and women were not represented in these halls of power in Berlin – and white men continued to dominate the panel discussions. How do we ensure that low income women and men are agents of their own destiny in the transition to an inclusive, green economy?

Paul Steele ([email protected]) is chief economist at IIED.

  • On 28 March, IIED co-hosted a Twitter chat designed to stimulate international dialogue and debate around how to manage the transition to green and fair economies. A summary of the online conversation is available in Storify format.