Growth and sustainability seek common ground
At Bubendorf near Basel, the Wattwerk building is the first in the world to produce more energy than it consumes (Michael Peuckert)
The so-called “green economy” will be one of the buzzwords at the upcoming Rio+20 summit, where the international community will discuss sustainable development and the future of the global economy.
Humanity’s challenge of managing the earth’s limited natural resources requires new and efficient modes of production, and the green economy, which is now on the international agenda, could be a solution.
Whether the Rio summit will take this new kind of economy to its heart remains questionable though, as preparatory meetings have shown stakeholders do not necessarily agree how to define it and have different goals for its implementation.
The Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, describes the foundation of the green economy as a combination of economic, ecological and social factors. It should allow the economy to pursue its growth, while imposing less pressure on the environment and using less resources.
Urs Näf of economiesuisse’s infrastructure, energy and environment department is convinced that we can maintain our standard of living without additional resources.
“Economic growth and the burden on the environment must be linked,” he told swissinfo.ch. In other words, the environmental burden must decrease even when the population and the economy continue to grow.
For Näf, this also means that work processes must be improved, while new technologies, energy efficiency and renewable energies all have a role to play in replacing “dirty” resources such as coal or heavy crude oil.
For Franz Perrez, head of the Swiss delegation in Rio and of the international division at the Federal Environment Office, the green economy is more than a buzzword.
“Its share of the total economy is increasing,” he said. “An example of this is Cleantech Switzerland, an association of exporting cleantech firms. But more and more companies are investing in the green economy as well.”
Rising to the challenges
Switzerland has little in the way of natural resources, making it a prime customer for efficient technologies according to Hans-Peter Egler, head of trade promotion at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).
“We are a good example of how to respond to these challenges,” he said. “Thanks to cleantech technologies, we get to work with other countries, especially developing nations.”
Egler added that countries such as Indonesia, China and India are particularly interested in a more sustainable future.
Switzerland has been pushing for a so-called “green economy roadmap” ahead of the Rio summit. The international community would have to set concrete goals and measures for a green economy that would also promote sustainable development and fight poverty.
Growth v Green
Developing and emerging nations are, however, sceptical about the green economy movement. They fear that developed countries will introduce higher environmental norms to protect their own markets.
“Many developing nations believe that the green economy will only mean new trade barriers, refusing to see its potential,” Egler told swissinfo.ch.
For Jürg Buri, head of the Swiss Energy Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, Rio will be first and foremost about the global economy and not the climate.
“The most technologically evolved countries want more environmental protection and cleantech, to keep countries with lower production costs like china, Brazil and India out of their markets,” he said.
Buri reckons that betting on a green economy and expecting further growth is a non-starter. He says that it will take courage to set aside growth and choose an economy that is sparing with resources and promotes the recycling waste.
There are also concerns in industrialised nations, which fear an inundation of cheap environmental technologies from places such as China.
For Näf, Switzerland and countries like it can be competitive, but only if the same rules apply everywhere.
“You can’t let some nations have the right to ignore the green economy and allow them to pursue policies of social and environmental dumping so they can be more competitive,” he said.
Feeding the world's poor
Agriculture will be one of the focal points in Rio as one of the biggest polluters of the environment. But green technologies will not be sufficient to solve its environmental problems as well as fight hunger and poverty, according to NGO Swissaid.
“Switzerland is focusing too much on environmental problems in Rio and is not recognising the importance of fighting poverty and the right to development in developing nations,” said Tina Goethe, an agricultural specialist for Swissaid.
For Goethe, this will only lead to clashes and yield no progress.
“The green economy is an interesting concept, but compared with sustainable development it falls short since while it focuses on the economy and ecology, it sidelines social development,” she added.
Goethe is hoping that delegates in Rio will recognise that growth strategies need to be rethought.
“Producing more and faster should be questioned as a model, since growth and sustainable development are to some extent at odds with each other,” she pointed out.
Perrez sees no fundamental contradiction though.
“Growth and development need each other,” he said. “The only way to overcome poverty in the world, and ensure development and growth for all is to do it is on a sustainable basis.”