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Is green growth just a fad?

"Green growth" is en vogue in the development and international affairs world.  

The Republic of Korea has created a new Global Green Growth Institute, and a major UN Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro in July 2012 will focus on two topics – one of which will be "green economy". The OECD has an entire program of work devoted to green growth and both UNEP and Germany's Development Ministry have published recent reports on the green economy. The think-tank WRI has put together a compendium of green economy policies, programs and initiatives from around the world. And that’s just a few initiatives…

Will green growth continue to grow? Credit: Stephen John Bryde, 2006

So when the Green Growth Leaders (GGL) and the University of California Berkley released yet another report on green growth just over a month ago, I was tempted to overlook it. But I’m glad I didn’t, because it made the best case I’ve seen so far that green growth is not just a fad, and something to take real notice of.

The Green Growth Leaders report systematically reviewed the literature on a particular definition of green growth (which UNEP and OECD also use) – best described as "resource efficient, low-carbon, climate-resilient and socially-inclusive" growth. 

This kind of green growth has been subject to a great deal of economic analysis to date. It's underpinned by the analysis in the Stern Review that the global costs of action on climate change will be lower than the costs of inaction – analysis which has now been replicated in many regions and countries, for example the DFID-funded studies in South East Asia and Tanzania. It is also underpinned by Marginal Abatement Cost Curves (i.e. charts that set out the costs of different options for reducing emissions) that show that increasing energy and resource efficiency – by installing energy efficient lighting or strict building codes – have positive economic benefits. Economic analysis also suggests that more costly measures, such as investment in low-carbon technologies like solar or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), will lead to extra growth because they stimulate extra innovation (this is known as "endogenous" growth). There is also emerging evidence that green investments generate new "green jobs".

The Green Growth Leaders report eloquently summarised this evidence, then convincingly addressed detractors. For example, it countered a concern by many economists that green job increases will be offset by losses in non-green jobs. It carefully argued that most people will not use the savings they get from being more efficient to just increase their resource use (a phenomenon known as the "Jevons Paradox"). And it argued that the innovation gains from subsidising particular clean technologies will outweigh any inefficiency losses from doing so.

But there were two more points I'd have liked to see addressed in the report.

First, I'd have liked to have seen much more evidence from developing countries - some of which exists. For example, the IFC has collected evidence on the costs and benefits of implementing solar energy, and the Global Environmental Facility and Climate Investment Funds – which DFID support, have a great deal of information on how developing countries have implemented low-carbon options.

The reason it needed more evidence from developing countries is that some policy makers are still not convinced that the sorts of policies advocated in the Green Growth Leaders report will work well in developing countries. They worry that developing countries tend to have very different legal and economic structures, and that they do not have the time or resources to introduce new regulation and/or increase public and private investment in green activities. This is an important critique, and many developing countries are trying to avoid doing "extra" work by reducing subsidies in non-green activities or greening their growth paths from the very start. Latin America’s bus-rapid-transit boom – discussed in this excellent Brooking's podcast is a prime example. The Climate and Development Knowledge Network will continue to collect such examples through its work on climate-compatible development. 

Second, I'd have liked to see the Green Growth Leaders report more clearly take into account concerns about impending resource scarcity – such as of water, oil, land and food. Resources, as Alex Evans (a fellow at New York University) argues in this short presentation, could well end up being the key drivers for green growth in developing countries in the coming years. 

Despite these shortcomings, I believe that the clear and objective evidence in the Green Growth Leaders report is exactly what is needed to give politicians the ammunition to move ahead. Barak Obama's latest weekly address, made during a visit to an American hybrid car manufacturer, was testament to this.   

So we now need a similar report focused on developing countries. The new UNEP report and paper by Bowen and Fankhauser, both focused on least developed countries and low-carbon growth, represent very useful contributions.     

But my hunch is that we may need to use the systematic, Green Growth Leaders approach to be really game-changing. If this happens, I’ll gamble on green growth remaining en vogue, rather than a passing fad.  

If not... well let’s not think about that.

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  1. Comment by Enrique Mendizabal posted on

    Her hunch, she believes, she would have liked... This is all very well but I was hoping for an actual look into (behind) the green growth fad -as you announced via twitter. "Is green growth just a fad? Our blogger Hannah Ryder looks behind the trend in development: #DevDebates". I am not sure what is the purpose of these blogs. They do no add any content to the discussion. Nor are they so well written that are likely to change the minds of anyone reading it. i got tired of reading "developing countries' over and over again. And it is shame because Hannah has the experience and the contacts to tell us something we do not know.

    Here is something we need: studies on individual countries, undertaken by the individual countries and debated in their own political spaces (not donor moderated). Forget about big brush 'develoPING countrIES' reports that provide no information of relevance to any country in particular. This is a waste of money. Just like a Climate a Development Network that has to work in 60 (yes, 60) counties with a budget that translates into less than a few hundred thousand pounds in each (and that is including consultants fees -so effective cash to do this type of work is really quite insignificant).

    It is all well champion CDKN's 'climate compatible development' -what is, btw, climate incompatible development (climate incompatible growth maybe, but development?). Anyway.

  2. Comment by Kris posted on

    While there are noticeable highs and lows in year to year data, over longer periods of time there is a discernable warming trend across the globe. Natural causes can explain only a small part of this warming. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that this is due to rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by human activities. Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today. Rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather will bring changes in weather patterns. The effects will also be felt in the UK, therefore we must be prepared to act now in order to adapt to climate change and to reduce the risk by contributing less to the causes. Forests protect and nurture humanity in a variety of ways. Why, then, does deforestation continue? Who is responsible for it? It's us! How to Be a Green?
    - Change your eating habits. This is one of the biggest and most important ways to live a natural, healthy, green life e.g:
    - Go organic with everything else possible in your life as well. Organic doesn’t stop with the food that you eat.
    - Go green and natural with your furnishings as well. Solid wood furniture made with non toxic stains and paints, natural bamboo, cork, or wood flooring and VOC free paints are excellent choices when remodeling or upgrading your furnishings e.g:
    - Consider gently used. Used items can be wonderful, soft, broken in and better the second (or third) time around. There are plenty of second hand stores, consignment shops and thrift stores that cater to baby and children’s items e.g
    - Clean green. Going through all the trouble of buying organic foods and natural products can go to waste when you still fill your home with toxic and synthetic chemicals through the use of conventional cleaning products. Try all natural solutions like Seventh Generation, Bi-O-Kleen, Ecover, and others that are safe and natural.
    - Get friends and family involved. It is hard to be green when everyone around you isn’t. Especially when it involves people that will probably at some time bring things to your home and buy gifts for your kids.
    - Make recycling a habit. Set up your recycling bins and get the kids involved. They might enjoy helping you peel off labels, rinse out containers and sort through everything and out it into the right bins. Also make sure to explain the importance of recycling and why you do it.
    Keep the green going throughout every aspect of their life. It is a lifelong process to change, learn and be green and it isn’t hard. Once you start it’s hard to stop, plus you won’t want to anyway. It will become a natural part of your life!