Thursday, December 29, 2011

The true colors of green economy

By Silvia Ribeiro
América Latina en Movimiento
December 19, 2011

Twenty years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development (World Summit or Eco ‘92) a new world conference will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012. Rio+20, as it is known, will be set in the midst of the greatest global crises in the century: environmental devastation, biodiversity erosion, climate crisis, economic and financial crisis, food crisis, and health crisis.

Although Rio+20 was supposed to review the commitments made, the state of the real problems and the strategies to resolve them, the issues on the agenda are green economy and new forms of global environmental governance. If the term “sustainable development” was ambiguous and was profusely manipulated, the substitution for green economy points to an even more restrictive approach, which privileges those who dominate the markets.

Far from an anodyne meeting at the UN, Rio+20 is announced as the stage of dispute because it could be a key moment in a rearrangement of discourse and global geopolitics. This would consolidate new financial markets with nature and more oligopolistic control of natural resources, legitimize new high-risk technologies, and lay the foundation of new global environmental governance that will ease the advance of a green economy in tune with corporations.

What does green economy refer to?

For many people and organizations, the term “green economy” can have a positive meaning, associated with organic farming production, renewable energies, and clean technologies. In the movements there is a diversity of alternative economic proposals, socially just, culturally correct and sustainably environmental. However, the concept of “green economy” that is being handled by governments is going along a different path. It is basically about renewing capitalism amid this crisis, increasing the bases of exploitation and the privatization of nature.

Back in Eco’92, transnational companies were already using “green make-up”. The concept of green economy follows this path, but it is more worrying, both due to the expansion of the mercantilization of nature and ecosystems —and the impact on the peoples that rely on them— and because the new technologies that they now refer to, be it explicitly or not, imply huge risks.

Officially green

The concept of “green economy” is ambiguous and there is no consensus among governments. A recurrent precedent in the official discussions leading up to Rio+20 is the Green Economy Initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It outlines the “Global Green New Deal” proposed by the organization in 2008 and which Obama and other heads of state mentioned as a win-win response to the crises. It suggests confronting the financial and climate crises by redirecting investments to “natural capital”, by giving tax incentives to companies that produce clean energy (such as agrofuels) and expanding the carbon markets. Brazil, which already had a lot of investment in these areas and abundant natural resources to place in the markets, suggested that green economy be a central issue in Rio+20, which was later endorsed by the UN.

The main issues of the green economy stand on three main pillars: a) a greater mercantilization and privatization of nature and ecosystems, integrating its roles as “services” to the financial markets, b) the promotion of new technologies and a broad expansion of the use of biomass, and c) a policy framework that will allow and reward all that, i.e., what governments and societies should do in order that corporations can make a profit with the first two.

Privatizing air

One of the early components of the package proposed by the green economy is the payment for environmental services (PES) or ecosystem services. These include the payment for environmental, forestry, hydrologic, landscape, and bioprospecting (biopiracy) services. They imply the redefinition of the roles of nature and biodiversity as “services” in order to be able to turn them into merchandise. The PES have entailed many conflicts between indigenous groups and peasants, within and among communities, since they promote competition to see who gets there first to trade the shared goods. The PES schemes call for inventing “owners” of the ecosystem roles, of the knowledge of biodiversity, of the traditional protection of water, basins, and forests, since they have always been shared and collective goods that could not be turned into a merchandise.

The PES means that a transnational corporation —which might have never been on the terrain— may end up deciding on the territory, the water, or the biodiversity of indigenous and peasant communities in southern countries.

Based on these experiences, the REDD programs (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and avoided Forest Degradation) have come into existence. The approval of such programs at the Climate Change Convention in December 2010 opened up all the forests of the world to the speculative financial markets in one fell swoop.

The hypothesis behind REDD is that in order to stop deforestation —a serious factor in the climate crisis— those who deforest must be economically compensated. The idea is not to halt deforestation, but instead to pay off those who deforest. That’s why it is called “avoided” deforestation: first comes deforestation, then comes the selling of the interruption of the activity.

Later additions to the original program include compensation payments for “increasing the inventories of carbon” and for “conservation” and “sustainable forest management”. The former involves monoculture tree plantations after deforestation has taken place, which has a huge impact on the environment and on the communities. But the most sinister thing about this mechanism is the so-called “conservation and sustainable management” because they directly aim to divest indigenous and forest communities of their rights and territories in exchange for payment for the air of their forests.

Because REDD is paid, what is done with the forest and its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide must be verifiable, that is say, it must be demonstrated by expensive external agents who the communities must hire to be told what they can do with their own forests and territories. The highly contaminating corporations and the great producers of greenhouse emissions buy the carbon absorption capacity of forests so that they can keep on polluting. However, now they have the justification —which has never been scientifically proven but is otherwise very lucrative— that somewhere in the world some forest will absorb the corporation’s emissions. At the same time, the carbon bonds obtained enter the secondary market where the same corporation can sell them to others at a higher price, recover its investment, as well as make some extra money. The greatest volume of the carbon markets takes place in secondary speculation, that is to say, the sale and re-sale of, literally, pure air.

In general, all the carbon trading schemes are directed at the speculative markets, a much larger market than the primary markets. Currently in the Climate Change Agreement, what is at stake is the inclusion of the soil and agriculture —the foundation of the world’s food— as a great carbon sink to be tossed into financial speculation.

Some organizations believe these programs are an acknowledgement of the contribution that indigenous and peasant communities make to take care of the environment and to stop climate change. Hence, it is good these programs exist. Experience shows that the impact of these schemes of mercantilization of nature and its roles has been much worse than any payment that some people might get.

With this system, indigenous, peasant and local communities have received no real social recognition for the fundamental role they have played historically and at present in taking care of biodiversity and in producing diverse and healthy food for mankind. This recognition could take the form of supporting the effective exercise of the communities’ integral rights —including the right to their own land and territory, their cultures, and their different economies and politics. Instead, the green economy is privatizing and turning nature into merchandise, as it replaces the communities’ rights with commercial transactions, and what should be public policies with market competition.

Green Technological Tsunami?

The other pillar of the green economy is the use of new technologies. The technological proposition is particularly important in the face of the current crisis because it downplays the high-earnings productive industry and strengthens the illusion that we need not examine the causes of the crisis: everything can be solved with more technology.

Almost all technology patents— including those necessary for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy— are in the hands of the large corporations, which defend monopolies ferociously and are not willing to discuss the cancellation of these patents under any economic system, be it green or any other color. Let alone if it means broadening their markets.

In any case, not even these so-called environmentally-friendly energy sources are suitable for all parts of the world, let alone when they are implemented as mega-projects conducted by transnationals, abusing the indigenous territories. Besides, these projects usually require the use of nanotechnologies, a highly widespread industry. And despite the hundreds of research studies showing the toxicity of nanoparticles and nanocompounds to health and environment, these technologies are not regulated anywhere in the world. Moreover, the real energy cost of the complete lifecycle of nanotechnology products and the toxic waste they generate, among other factors, remain unknown.

Another underlying technology to the green economy is biotechnology. This kind of technology ranges from more transgenic crops for agrofuels and which are “climate resistant” to synthetic biology, that is, labs that build genes, metabolic steps, or entire synthetic microbes in order to produce new industrial substances. The most immediate uses refer to the processing of cellulose, which earlier was unviable because it was inefficient and costly. With the microbes resulting from synthetic biology, it is possible to process any source of carbohydrates —such as cellulose— in order to build polymers that can be turned into fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other industrial substances. Suddenly all nature, everything living or that has been alive, is seen as “biomass”, the new universal raw material to process with synthetic biology. The dispute to hoard any source of natural or grown biomass is underway and it has become one of the new major threats to nature and peoples.

Also technologies like geo-engineering, that is, the deliberate manipulation of the planet’s climate, converge in the green economy with some of its technologies, such as the massive use of biomass to burn and fertilize the soil as a carbon sink (biochar), vast monoculture plantations, or the fertilization of the seas in order to absorb carbon.

Considering the risks of these new technologies, the ETC group proposes establishing a multilateral mechanism of environmental, social, economic, and cultural pre-evaluation of the technologies. These evaluations should be conducted with the participation of civil society and the affected stakeholders before these technologies reach the markets. Technologies which are extremely dangerous or which have a high warfare potential must be forbidden.

Instead of this “green economy”, what we need is social and environmental justice. All over the world, social movements have a variety of proposals to make it effective. And in addition to proposals, conclusive practices, for example that of the indigenous and peasant production that feeds most of the world and is already “cooling” the planet.
Translation: Germán Warckmeister.

- Silvia Ribeiro is a member of the ETC Group.

(This article was first published in Spanish in América Latina en Movimiento, No. 468-9, “El cuento de la economía verde”,

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