Green Unilateralism

At this month’s Rio+20 summit, policymakers, business executives, and civil-society representatives will express their commitment to advance inclusive, sustainable development. But the global economy's best hope for transformation is to build on unilateral actions taken by countries in pursuit of their own economic interests.

GENEVA – At the upcoming Rio+20 summit in Brazil, more than 135 heads of state and government, and up to 50,000 participants, including business executives and civil-society representatives, will come together to express their collective commitment to advance inclusive, sustainable development. But, despite the goal of unity and collective action underpinning the summit, the best way forward for the global economy is to build on the actions that individual countries and regions are taking in pursuit of their own interests.

Despite the summit’s aspirational rhetoric, there is no consensus about how to achieve sustainable development, exemplified by disagreement over the potential of “green growth.” Advocates argue that “clean tech,” “smart financing,” and “investment-grade” public policies will usher in a new and enlightened era of economic growth that does not degrade the environment. For opponents, however, green growth is more like “green-washed growth” – a merely cosmetic change to the business-as-usual approach that gave us the global financial crisis, and that perpetuates poverty and exacerbates inequality.

Given this divergence, policymakers must grasp today’s immediate opportunities, rather than rely on the desirable – but remote – possibility of global consensus. Counting on today’s resource-intensive, profit-driven world economy to deliver quickly the global public goods of environmental security and development requires profound optimism, especially given the dire political and economic circumstances of key powers, notably Europe and the United States. Capital markets’ shortsightedness – on plain display in recent years – does little to raise hopes. Although investment in clean technology is on the rise, it is far from reaching the more than $1 trillion annually needed to deliver green energy and infrastructure fit for the twenty-first century.

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