By: Bijan Rohani

The coastal city of Rio de Janeiro is preparing to host a global and highly vital meeting on the future of the environment, development and the economy. The heads of numerous countries, including Iran’s, plan to participate in the meeting, which begins on June 20.

In addition to government representatives, hundreds of non-governmental and research groups, as well as grassroots organizations and media and public relations representatives will attend the events. Many world media outlets have already focused on this important event and are reflecting various views and questions regarding the divergent expectations that different groups have around this meeting.

Sustainable Development and the Green Economy

 

In 1992, at another global gathering about planet Earth’s environment in that same city of Rio de Janeiro, the term “sustainable development” entered the vocabulary of the world of politics and the economy. With the passage of 20 years, different social groups, political decision-makers and captains of industries still have differing opinions of what that term means. There is no consensus on the definition of sustainable development or how to achieve it. And this is probably the main knot that keeps the global environment facing many dangers.

Now, after 20 years, various countries want to renew their understanding of a green economy and sustainable development at Rio+20. They also want to consider the challenges facing today’s world which were not discussed back then. Many emphasize the key role of the “green economy” in achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty, but in reality many still do not have a clear vision of this concept.

Disagreements

It appears that there are already many disagreements among the participating delegates regarding the meaning of green economy and how it fits with the exploitation of natural resources. According to the participant drafts sent to conference organizers, which are currently accessible on the conference website, some countries believe that the material wealth of various ecosystems available for human beings should be evaluated and incorporated as the heart of the green economy. In contrast, another group of representatives believes this definition would open the doors to more self-interested exploitation of nature and its incorporation into the free market.

The terms green economy and sustainable economy, which appear to be positive concepts, hold many contradictions and deep controversies within them. We might simplify and summarize the problem in this way:

On one hand, wealthy countries (the representatives of northern countries) say: We waste nature because we do not appreciate its value. OK, but sometimes in this simple statement, the concepts of value and price are equated. That is, the value of nature is seen only in the monetary value of the goods that can be produced from it and sold for profit. These countries argue that to protect nature and its resources, and also to protect the natural services that we need for its development, we have to calculate the cost of exploiting those resources along with the material value of doing so, and apply this calculation in the marketplace. By using this logic, they say, we can stop nature’s destruction.

The Market-Oriented View and Its Critique

There is nothing new about this market-oriented view of nature. The United Nations has previously used it, for example. According to this reasoning, if the amount of carbon stored in the jungles is calculated and its cost is incorporated in the equations, then the financial value of protecting forests would be greater than the benefits drawn from its destruction through the cutting of trees.

This policy, which at first appears to be correct and an effective deterrent, in fact faces great criticism. According to this economic and financial logic, if the companies can plant a tree for every tree they destroy, their deforestation activities will be justifiable. However, the same reasoning has led to the destruction of a vast region of tropical forests and, even worse, vast areas of land, in Uganda, for example, have been seized from local residents in order to plant the substitute trees.

Now many wealthy countries plan to extend this rationale to other areas and use it, for example, for the protection of biodiversity or the preparation of clean drinking water and other services that nature can provide for human beings. This rationale may, on the one hand, lead to the protection of nature. But ultimately it will lead to the privatization of natural resources, resources that belong to all humanity, a fact that accords legal rights and responsibilities to all of us.

Hopes

It appears that this debate will be one of the main challenges at the Rio+20 gathering, possibly to the detriment of constructive discussions. The constructive hopes for the Rio gathering include getting rid of vast subsidies for fossil fuels, garnering support for green and environmentally friendly industries, and scrapping taxes on social services while levying heavier taxes on industries and activities that pollute the environment.

Although the concept of a green economy is currently embroiled in differences in opinion and definition, in the long run, we all need an economy that will change our models of production and consumption, and replace our pathological obsession with excessive growth with concern for a healthy and well functioning society.

The Rio+20 gathering hopes to create the necessary space for such vibrant discussions among government heads on the world stage and also create similar opportunities for the engagement of citizens and non-governmental groups.