Tracy Elsen

Best Ideas of 2011: Green Economy and Green Growth

Editor’s Note: This week, NextBillion contributors are reflecting on what struck them as the best ideas that came to light in 2011 – ideas with the potential to spark real change in 2012 and beyond.

Will 2011 be remembered as the year that, as the world’s population hit 7 billion and problems in our economic model became increasingly apparent, we began figuring out how to transform the global economy to green growth? I certainly hope so.

A green economy, as defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is one that “results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” An economy that works better for both people and the planet – it almost sounds too good to be true. But this year, the ideas of green economy and green growth became the subject of much buzz that has the potential to turn into action starting in 2012.

In early January, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon dramatically called for a shift to a green economy in front of the globe’s most powerful leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We mined our way to growth,” he said. “We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone. In the 21st century, supplies are running short and the global thermostat is running high.” He implored the audience to “leap confidently into the future with cutting-edge technologies, the best science and entrepreneurship has to offer, to build a safer, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all.”

The Path to a Green Economy

In November, UNEP chimed in with a report on how to achieve green growth while allowing global GDP to continue to grow at its current rate, if not faster. “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication” stated that an investment of 2 percent of global GDP into ten key sectors – agriculture, energy, buildings, water, waste, forestry, fishing, manufacturing, tourism and transport – would ensure continued growth while moving the world away from the risks, shocks and crises of the current economic system.

This pathway to a green economy would place economic value on the planet’s limited and essential nature-based assets such as water and forests, while simultaneously creating new jobs and greater income equity around the world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which released the report “Towards Green Growth” in May, emphasized the connection between sustainable growth and job creation. “With the right policies in place, we can create jobs, increase prosperity, preserve our environment and improve the quality of life. All at the same time,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría at the time of the report’s release.

Green Economy in 2012

The momentum created in 2011 toward a green economy looks likely to pick up speed in 2012. In June, the Rio + 20 Conference on sustainable development will take place in Brazil, bringing together heads of state to create a renewed commitment to sustainable development. A green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is set to be one of the two major themes of the conference.

At a national level, countries from Barbados to South Africa are developing Green Economy strategies and action plans to spur green growth. China has already committed to spending US$468 billion over the next five years on green industries such as renewable energy, clean technology and waste management. This figure more than doubles what the country spent on these industries over the past five years.

As we move towards a green economy, environmental entrepreneurs that create profits by devising innovative ways to responsibly use the planet’s resources will become increasingly essential. These companies’ business models can shift the countries in which they work toward more sustainable development. Environmental entrepreneurs and their businesses will serve as the engines of green growth, turning a concept into reality.

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