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UNGA Debates Green Economy

2 June 2011: The UN General Assembly (UNGA) held an informal thematic debate on the topic “Green Economy: A Pathway to Sustainable Development,” including a morning panel on opportunities and challenges of a green economy, and an afternoon panel on transitioning toward green economy, as well as extensive discussion.

In the opening segment of the debate, held on 2 June 2011, at UN Headquarters in New York, US, UNGA President Joseph Deiss said the major characteristic of the green economy is the decoupling of economic growth from the use of fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources, including by developing clean technologies and green goods and services. He added that the green economy could allow countries to “leap” over the mistakes of developed countries, directly to cleaner technologies. He stressed the importance for prices to send signals to encourage environmentally friendly behavior by both producers and consumers. Deiss also noted the need to eliminate harmful subsidies, avoid “green protectionism,” and base the green economy on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility.”

UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro spoke about climate change and energy security, noting the problems could not be solved by isolated and fragmented measures but by agreements like those reached at the Cancun Climate Change Conference in 2010 on a Green Climate Fund and clean energy pathway. Migiro underscored the need to tailor the green economy to national circumstances, within an agreed global framework.

In the first panel debate, moderator Tundi Agardy, Sound Seas, said the focus of discussion is no longer the need for a green economy, but how to make the shift. She noted that a green economy is not just about what happens on land, but also about oceans and coasts.

Søren Søndergaard Kjær, Deputy Permanent Secretary for Environment, Denmark, spoke of Denmark's experiences as a “best practice case” and explained how government institutions could create green demand for innovation, and create green jobs while reducing resource use.

Suzana Kahn Ribeiro, Green Economy Sub-Secretary, State Environment Secretariat, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,noted that concepts like competitiveness and job creation now could be part of an environmental debate. She outlined how the state of Rio de Janeiro is promoting growth while protecting its natural resources, and called for regional governance regarding green economy. Kahn noted the importance of transparency and accountability in a green economy, for which indicators are currently being created.

HarshaV. Singh, Deputy Director-General, World TradeOrganization (WTO) noted the WTO's “toolbox” for addressing concerns about trade protectionism. He also highlighted other concerns in the green economy debate, notably intellectual property rights (IPR), which are important for balancing the generation of green technology and its diffusion.

Clay Nesler, Vice President for Global Energy and Sustainability, Johnson Controls, outlined his company's strategies and achievements in environmental responsibility. He stressed the need for incentives, market mechanisms, and other government policies, and said openness and transparency were needed to bring energy efficiency into the future.

In the interactive discussion session, Argentina, on behalf of the Group of 77 and China (G77/China), reiterated the need for a flexible approach that recognizes differing levels of economic development. The Group stressed the “preeminence of Rio Principles,” including common but differentiated responsibility, and it called for similar events on the objective and second theme of the UNCSD, which were of great interest to developing countries. The Group also noted that marine, ocean, coastal and fisheries resources represent “a primary pathway to future sustainable growth and poverty eradication.”

The EU agreed that “no one size fits all” but said it was useful to exchange experiences, and called for a UN Green Economy Road Map to clarify the steps needed at each level of economic development. This would help identify capacity building and technical assistance needs, and provide an implementation timeline and indicators. The EU noted that economic growth can be promoted by promoting resource efficiency and called for “gradually internalizing external costs and benefits.”

Mexico echoed others' concerns about conditionalities, called for technology transfer, and stressed five elements: expansion of green markets through voluntary norms; credit access for small and medium business for environmentally-friendly investments; tax measures for energy efficient buildings; use of ODA to promote efficient energy consumption; and expansion of electric services in rural communities.

Pakistan called for safeguards to alleviate concerns about possible detrimental measures. He noted that the two themes of the UNCSD were two sides of the same coin, as Pakistan's approach to a green economy would include reconfiguring the institutions to deliver on greening efforts. Pakistan also noted that translating the green economy into reality requires energy access, and said the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and others should be tasked to produce a report on sustainable energy goals akin to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He also expressed the belief that correcting market failures alone would create a green economy, nor that country actions alone could do it, stressing the need for "a major push" at the international level. Finally, he underscored that access to sustainable energy for all – not trade – was the central issue in the transition to a green economy.

The Russian Federation stressed the need to ensure energy efficiency, resource savings, and reduce human impact on the environment, and called for a roadmap outlining timeframe, sequencing and means. Cuba called for financing guarantees and flexibility in IPR, to provide technology to developing countries on a preferential basis. She also suggested that using food for fuel could affect food prices and food security.

The Seychelles emphasized that small island developing States (SIDS) contributed to job creation in developed countries “and to feeding them,” adding that a green economy must include consideration of oceans and coasts, in order to benefit all members of the world economy.

Japan said a new green growth model should not sacrifice economic development, and should promote the efficient use of natural resources and environmental protection. He called for further discussion of: the internalization of environmental costs; green infrastructure of government; and technological innovation including through transfer to developing countries. Other speakers included Hungary, Spain, Brazil, the US, Morocco, Benin, Egypt, and a civil society representative.

Panelists responded to questions and comments on the topics of taxation, voluntary labeling of green products, the need for a better understanding of a green economy, the need for a legal forum for concerns about protectionism, the potential for technological innovation to serve as an economic stimulator, and the concept of “leapfrogging” by developing countries over undesirable technologies previously used by developed countries.

James Leape, WWF, moderated the second panel. Paul Toungui, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabon, said the green economy was not just a fashion but truly indispensable, noting that his region was one of the “lungs of the planet.”

Du Ying, Vice Chairman, National Development and Reform Commission, China, asserted that the development of a green economy should: aim to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development; respect individual countries' national conditions; follow the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility;” and establish a just and equitable international economic order. He also called for action-oriented outcomes from the UNCSD.

Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director-General, UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said that while the definition of green economy was still debated, there was agreement on the importance of energy access for a green economy. He suggested a package of elements for consideration at the UNCSD, including universal access to energy and reducing energy intensity by 40% by 2030. He said UNIDO would present actionable elements for discussion in September and would be launching, in Rio, an initiative under the UN Secretary-General's leadership and with support mobilized by the Friends of Energy, to provide a clear path to achieving the goals. Yumkella expressed hope that Rio+20 would “be the place where energy access was made central to the sustainable development agenda.”

Marianne Fay, Chief Economist, Sustainable Development Network, World Bank, spoke of the need for several transitions within the green economy transition, such as a natural resource management transition and a human capital transition. She also outlined the Bank's current efforts to build the international community's knowledge base for shifting to a green economy. These initiatives include: the Green Growth Knowledge Platform; WAVES; climate risk and adaptation country profiles; and the Climate Finance Portal.

In the interactive discussion, several statements were made including by four SIDS (Fiji, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago), five other developing countries, five developed countries, and one NGO, La Via Campesina.

Calls from SIDS countries included: access to and transfer of sustainable energy; a just and fair trading system including preferential trade treatment for those in special situations; a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to be agreed at the Durban Climate Change Conference; integration of ocean and marine ecosystems into the wider discussion; and ensuring a role for SIDS in the transition to a green economy. The Seychelles noted that SIDS were “ideal real-time laboratories” to develop the concept.

Other developing countries, including Belarus and Indonesia, highlighted the challenge of technology transfer to enable all countries to participate in the green economy. Nicaragua stressed the role for indigenous and traditional knowledge, while Ecuador emphasized the importance of equity and wealth distribution as guiding principles. South Africa offered a formal definition of a green economy: “a system of economic activities related to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that result in improved human well-being over the long-term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks or ecological scarcities,” and outlined its recently adopted New Growth Path.

Developed countries outlined elements of a “common understanding” of green economy. Germany described the creation of decent, secure jobs. The UK noted that growth could protect and improve, not diminish, natural resources and called for a multi-stakeholder approach. Sweden called for social protections, indicators beyond gross domestic product (GDP), and tackling harmful subsidies. Norway shared its successes with carbon taxes. France called for a roadmap, or common plan that takes specificities into account.

La Via Campesina said food sovereignty was an indispensable condition to allow farmers to continue feeding the world and addressing the climate crisis. It urged more skepticism from governments and civil society toward corporations and suggested that “false solutions” could transfer the costs of pollution to the world's poor.

Panelists responded to States' questions and comments, on topics such as abolishing fossil fuel subsidies, tax incentives for new technologies, opportunities for leadership in oceans issues, and lessons from the Copenhagen and Cancun Climate Change Conferences.

Closing the debate, Leape noted that the green economy represents a fundamental change – not making the economy greener, but a real revolution. Sha Zukang, UNCSD Secretary-General, said that market access and capacity building are key issues “if we are serious about a green economy.” He highlighted priorities for agreement at the UNCSD, including universal access to sustainable energy by 2030, sustainable cities, blue economy, food security, and sustainable consumption and production (SCP). Deiss said the debate had shown there was no contradiction or competition between green economy and the development of all countries, and noted that all participants seemed to agree on the fundamental issues. [Website of Green Economy Debate] [DESA Press Release] [Opening Remarks of UNGA President] [Remarks of UN Deputy Secretary-General] [Webcast of Thematic Debate, Part I] [Webcast of Thematic Debate, Part II] [UN News Centre] [UN DPI Summary of Debate]