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Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension
10 Oct 2011 - 11 Oct 2011
United Nations, Geneva

Many developing country governments, civil society actors and scholars fear that certain approaches to green economy could sideline or even undermine sustainable development. Key concerns include new forms of conditionality and protectionism, threats to food security from biofuels, and the commodification of nature. An underlying issue is whether green economy transition will reinforce particular market-led approaches to development that have increased North-South and inter-group inequalities in recent decades. The need to reject a one-size-fits-all model in favour of different approaches across regions and at different scales has been emphasized, especially by developing countries. Yet there is growing uncertainty about how to move forward in the current context of multiple global crises and natural disasters. Alternative perspectives such as those associated with climate justice, developmentalism and solidarity economy raise further questions about the potential of green economy to place inequality and those who are experiencing vulnerability at the centre of sustainable development. It is far from clear whether green economy transition will centre on technological fixes and "business as usual" or, conversely, be seized as an opportunity to enhance well-being and transform the social structures, institutions and power relations that underpin various forms of vulnerability and inequality.

Such concerns suggest that the relationships between green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication have not been adequately conceptualized. From this perspective it is important to direct attention to social dimensions of development associated with equity, livelihood security, social protection and empowerment. Social dimensions of green economy are often addressed in terms of green jobs, green consumerism, and the kinds of education/retraining, social safety-nets and social dialogue required to facilitate the transition. While poverty eradication is increasingly accepted as a goal of green economy, it is often assumed that it will follow inevitably from low-carbon growth. Unless social dimensions are addressed more centrally and comprehensively, there is a danger that efforts to connect green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication will fail.

Work in the United Nations system to address such concerns has directed attention beyond the economic and environmental dimensions of green economy. Thus a green economy has been defined by UNEP as "one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities", based upon a combination of low-carbon growth, resource efficiency and social inclusivity. A report of the United Nations Secretary-General, Objectives and Themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, flags the key role of social policies and institutions for both facilitating transition and dealing with adverse impacts. The preparatory process of UNCSD 2012 has identified the need for "further independent research on the potential social impacts of green economy" and, specifically, for information and analysis on the range of policy options, including "social policies to reconcile social goals with existing or proposed green economy policies".

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