Towards greener pastures? Rio+20 and the role of a green economy in achieving sustainable development

A few years ago when I was working in East Africa with Oxfam, I recall a well-experienced and respected colleague bemoaning the emergence of climate change as an additional focus for the aid and development sector.

“HIV & AIDS, gender, conflict, food security… We’re already struggling to address these issues [in our responses to poverty and disaster]. Surely we can’t be expected to tackle this as well”.

While I was sympathetic to her plea, it seemed inevitable. Some of the least developed regions on earth are highly vulnerable to and already experiencing the impacts of climate change. To not advocate for climate action or integrate climate adaptation into development work would be missing the forest for the trees, or in modern parlance, be ‘sustainable development’ without the sustainability.

Africa map - impacts of climate change

Mapping Africa's climate change hotspots -


Whether my old colleague still holds these views several years on I’m not sure. However, her exasperation would no doubt please former climate sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, who argues that sustainable development has become so pervaded by the climate change discussion, that it has lost the original focus on ‘development’, ie. lifting people out of poverty.

In a recent Newsweek article published in the lead-up to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Lomborg lamented Rio+20′s focus on developing a green economy, arguing that there are more critical environmental issues affecting developing nations and that to focus on reduced economic growth and consumption is to deny people who are living in poverty a critical path to economic prosperity.

Lomborg rightly highlights the need to address pressing environmental problems in developing countries, such as indoor air pollution, access to clean drinking water and poverty in itself.  But he misses the point that a country’s social and economic development ultimately relies upon a healthy environment, and when this is sacrificed such as in China’s cities and river networks, both the people and the natural environment pay a high price.  Furthermore, if the world is indeed awakening to the merits of green growth and the need for a more sustainable, greener economy, surely developing countries should have a seat at the table instead of just continuing to play catchup for years to come?

Wind turbines in India

Wind turbines in India -


The Rio+20 summit has been overwhelmingly labelled a failure by most participants and observers for its lack of political leadership and ambition necessary to ‘solve the connected crises of environment, equity and economy’. This includes governments failing to stand up to fossil fuel industries and put an end to the massive subsidies which only encourage more pollution. Yet there is cause for some mild optimism with work ahead to define and work towards new sustainable development goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals (and involve all countries, not just developing nations), as well as committing to step up the transfer of ‘environmentally-sound’ technologies to developing countries.

While the summit may not have delivered a blueprint for delivering a greener model of development, it has succeeded in illustrating and acknowledging the failure of our current economic models to deliver a more equitable world and the shortcomings of using GDP as the primary barometer for prosperity.  That in itself, over time, may prove to be a rather significant milestone…

Woman washing on the banks of Lake Tana, Bahar Dar, Ethiopia (Photo: Carly Hammond)

Woman washing on the banks of Lake Tana, Ethiopia (Photo: Carly Hammond)


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