The U.N. Green Economy Initiative: A Critique

Issue Date: 
July - August 2011
Volume and Number: 
Volume 11, No 4
Author: 
Mary Gilbert and David Millar
Quaker eco-Bulletin
Information and Action Addressing Public Policy for an 
Ecologically Sustainable World
Volume 11, Number 4 
 
 
July-August 2011
The U.N. Green Economy Initiative: A Critique
Mary Gilbert and David Millar
“Will it be a green or a greed economy? [It must be] socially just, redistributive and responsible... not foster 
a new generation of ‘green billionaires’. [It must] provide developing countries with the finance, technology 
transfer and capacity assistance that might enable this transition.” —Hannah Stoddard of Stakeholder Forum   
Introduction
Role of private capital: The Initiative promotes economic 
growth and profit generation. It claims that “the shift… [to a sus-
At its biennial meeting in February 2011, the U.N. Environ-
mental Programme (UNEP) formally presented their “Green  tainable economy] …will occur naturally,” but won’t be profitable 
Economy Report” with detailed recommendations. U.N. General  for the first 5 to 10 years. They warn that “the risk/reward equation 
Secretary Ban Ki-Moon urged governments and business leaders  still works unfavorably for would-be investors in the short term.” 
to abandon Business-As-Usual (BAU), which he called “a global 
Role of governments: Success requires “sound public poli-
suicide pact”, in favor of massive investment of public and private  cies and regulatory frameworks” including removal of “costly and 
funds in “sustainable development”. Implicit in the Report is the  harmful subsidies”.  Currently one to two percent of global GDP 
admission that earlier efforts have failed to meet the needs of the  goes to pernicious subsidies, particularly to fossil fuels. That money 
poor, and to stop the dangerous plundering that destroys the health  could and should be redirected by governments and multilateral 
of our living planet. 
financial institutions into green projects.
The Report launched a campaign to get business and gov-
Current tasksAlthough green economic growth is increasing 
ernment to invest in a massive change from “brown” to “green”  rapidly, the environmental crisis demands a bigger and faster shift. 
economy, and make up the huge shortfall in climate funds to poor  The report identifies two major challenges:
countries. It argues that the green shift is both necessary for human- 1) Decoupling: The Green Economy is based on the idea of eco-
ity and profitable for business, can reduce the human ecological  nomic growth on a  finite planet, so there is a need to decouple this 
footprint 50% by 2050, will  develop renewable energy sources,  growth from an increasing carbon and environmental footprint, 
be a net generator of jobs and an engine of economic growth, and  and reduce waste generation. See SCP in the Glossary.
is vital for the elimination of world poverty.
This Quaker Eco-Bulletin includes a summary of the Report 
and a discussion of the U.N.’s Green Economy Initiative (Initiative), 
Components of a Green Economy—
which will be the center-piece of the U.N. Conference on Sustain-
Examples from the UNEP report 
able Development June 4-6, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, called 
1)  Shift  industries  from  brown  to  green,  retrain  workers  for
“Rio+20”.  The U.N. aims to convince heads of state to sign on to 
green jobs.
the Initiative and commit to specific steps to begin implementing 
2)  The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) green
the programme. A timeline of pertinent events leading up to Rio+20 
accounting of ecosystem services and environment impacts.
and a glossary of acronyms and terms are included. 
3)  Sustainable  Consumption  and  Production  (SCP),  green
Summary of Green Economy Report  
procurement  by  business  and  government,  and  life-cycle
The report is presented in three parts:
design including recycling.
4)  National Green Accounting or Inclusive Wealth Accounting, a
Part I—Investing in Natural Capital—is divided into four areas: 
World Bank pilot project.
Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries, and Water 
5)  Micro-credit for the poor, e.g. Mohammed Yunus’ Grameen
Bank.
Part II—Investing in Energy and Resource Efficiency—identifies 
6)  India’s  National  Rural  Employment  Guarantee Act  2006  for
seven  sectors:  Manufacturing, Waste, Transport,  Renewable 
the rural poor.
Energy, Buildings, Tourism, and Cities
7)  Kenya’s feed-in tariff for renewable energy.
Part III—Supporting the transition to a global green economy—
8)  REDD financing of forestry.
describes three means to the stated ends: Modeling, Enabling 
9)  LULUCF financing of agriculture.
Conditions, and Finance
10)  Brazil’s recycling: 95% of all aluminum cans and 55% of all
The  U.N.  calls  for  investing  two  percent  of  world  GDP, 
polyethylene bottles.
US$ 1.3 trillion, each year until 2050, for economic development 
11)  Reducing  food  waste  and  improving  distribution  in  poor
intended to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 
countries.
and eliminate poverty. The funds are to come mostly from private 
12)  Urban public transport and retrofits, taxes on cars in the city.
capital.

2) Redefining:  It requires a shift in values. We must “re-think and redefine traditional 
measures of wealth, prosperity and well-being”, replacing the Gross Domestic Product 
Quaker  Eco-Bulletin  (QEB)  is  pub-
lished bi-monthly by Quaker Earthcare 
(GDP) with Indicators of Well-being.
Witness (formerly FCUN) as an insert 
Conclusion:  The report urges change from the current practice of responsible 
in BeFriending Creation.
investment, based on “do no harm”, to a new practice of sustainable investment—invest 
The vision of Quaker Earthcare Wit-
in solutions to sustainability challenges.
ness  (QEW)  includes  integrating  into 
Discussion
the beliefs and practices of the Society 
In January 2011 Ban Ki-Moon first announced the Initiative to corporate heads 
of Friends the Truths that God’s Cre-
at Davos. The U.N. is trying very hard to win businesses over, claiming that the world 
ation is to be held in reverence in its 
own right, and that human aspirations 
can meet the MDGs and replace the GDP with Indicators of Well-being, without 
for peace and justice depend upon re-
compromising corporate profits.
storing Earth’s ecological integrity. As a 
We find that the Initiative prioritizes economic growth over social justice and ecol-
member organization of Friends Com-
ogy; at best, it hopes to harmonize them. It argues that the green shift is both necessary 
mittee  on  National  Legislation,  QEW 
for humanity and profitable for business. It claims the Initiative wil : reduce the human 
seeks to strengthen Friends’ support for 
ecological footprint 50 percent by 2050, develop renewable energy sources, be an engine 
FCNL’s witness in Washington DC for 
of economic growth, prove vital for the elimination of world poverty through green job 
peace, justice, and an Earth restored. 
generation, ensure social justice, make up the huge shortfall in climate funds to poor 
QEB’s purpose is to advance Friends’ 
countries, and save the environment. All at once!  In addition to woefully insufficient 
witness  on  public  and  institutional 
government aid and World Bank loans, countries and landowners would get income 
policies that affect Earth’s capacity to 
from carbon credits through REDD for forest preservation, LULUCF for land uses, 
support life. QEB articles aim to inform 
and PES for other ecosystem services.
Friends about public and corporate poli-
Understanding the value of our environment, even in dol ar terms, is not the same 
cies that have an impact on society’s 
as having our commons (air, water, land, forest) become commodities sold as carbon 
relationship  to  Earth,  and  to  provide 
credits. Carbon trading is very different from the “green accounting” of environmental 
analysis and critique of societal trends 
impacts recommended by TEEB.
and institutions that threaten the health 
of the planet. 
Decoupling
Our current economic system assumes that unlimited economic growth is pos-
Friends are invited to contact us about 
sible on a finite planet. The trends, shown by Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and numerous 
writing an article for QEB. Submissions 
scientists, are very clear: since 1985 humankind has been using more than nature can 
are subject to editing and should: 
regenerate and recycle. Earth Overshoot Day—the day each year that we surpass net 
• Explain why the issue is a 
Friends’ concern.
natural productivity for the year—now comes in early August. Biology tells us a species 
• Provide accurate, documented 
that overshoots carrying capacity is due for collapse.  We are destroying the life support 
background information that re- 
systems of Earth, which may well mean the die-off of 8 billion humans and uncounted 
flects the complexity of the issue 
other species.  
and is respectful toward other 
Loopholes
points of view.
• Relate the issue to legislation or 
Despite good intentions, the details of the Initiative are full of loopholes fought 
corporate policy.
for by various interests.  Both LULUCF and REDD have such problems:
• List what Friends can do.
REDD payment to “forest landholders” ignores indigenous peoples, peasants and others 
• Provide references and sources 
who cannot prove legal title to the land. The current text permits logging, gives 
for additional information.
credits for wood products, defines monoculture tree plantations as “forest”, and 
exempts draining peatlands and climate-caused forest fires from REDD accounting. 
QEB Coordinator: Keith Helmuth
REDD must specifically include the free prior and informed consent of forest-
QEB Editorial Team: Judy Lumb, 
dwellers, peasants and indigenous peoples as specified in the U.N. Declaration 
Sandra Lewis, Barbara Day
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Already, such people have been evicted by 
security forces in numerous places. 
To receive QEB: 
LULUCF defines inhabited savannah as “marginal”, allowing bio-char, ethanol planta-
Email: info@quakerearthcare.org
tions and GMO mega-projects, and ignoring the rights of local people who prac-
Website: <QuakerEarthcare.org> 
tice dryland farming. This allows land grabs and dispossession, which are already 
Mail: write to address below
happening on a grand scale.
Projects of Quaker Earthcare Witness, 
There is a great deal to be encouraged about, and a great deal to cause alarm. Our 
such as QEB, are funded by contribu-
judgment is mixed. Mary is concerned, but glad to see this monumental effort to change 
tions to: 
our way of living on Earth; David is more troubled by its glaring flaws and loopholes. 
Quaker Earthcare Witness
Mary says: 
173-B N Prospect Street
Whenever I hear Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP, speak I feel 
Burlington VT 05401 
encouraged.  He  knows  very  wel   what  is  happening  to  our  planet,  destruction  of 
the sustaining environment, and what is causing it: mindless corporate greed. He is 
2
Quaker Eco-Bulletin 11:4  July-August 2011

convinced that once the heads of corporations fully understand  concern for smallholder farmers, appropriate small hydropower, 
the problem they will become responsible, use pertinent scientific  thriving local markets, or anything decentralized that would put 
information in corporate decision-making, and plan for the long  control into local hands.
term. Right now they don’t. 
David asks:
Steiner said UNEP isn’t “…targeting the current powers for 
Is “green investment” a Trojan horse?  Time and again the 
overthrow…It’s not a discussion about a ‘New Economic Order.’…  rich countries have pledged and then refused adequate aid. The 
[Our approach must be] based in the current market economy.  Initiative cal s for $1.3 tril ion per year, two percent of global GDP, 
… [This is] not ideological; we are just trying to bring the best  from investment, international aid, and money from carbon trad-
analytical and empirical evidence to create a better debate.”  He  ing income. For comparison, world military expenditure is $ 1.53 
also said, “Markets need regulatory systems; I want to learn which  trillion a year. U.S. spending on healthcare is 16 percent of GDP. 
ones work.”  The Initiative is promoting “the enormous social and  Both are rising. Many people of goodwill support Steiner’s goals, 
environmental benefits from combating climate change and re- but are the means desirable and will the goals be achieved? 
investing in natural infrastructure” so we can “move from mining 
At COPs 15 and 16, BAU won the day. If the green economy 
the planet to managing and re-investing in it”.
enables, extends, and “greenwashes” an unregulated carbon market, 
My big questions are whether the Initiative can work and what  we will be looking at the worst possible result: emissions rising 
it will look like on the ground. The history of such good intentions  ever faster, with pollution permits based on inflated or unprovable 
is pretty poor, as seen in our timeline. 
claims. Ban and Steiner may be right, that climate action requires 
Current  finance  and  corporate  practice  is  extremely  short  a massive bribe to the money powers, but we may pay the bribe 
term, demanding profit every three months. Can corporate investors  and get no results. 
be persuaded to forgo quick profits?  The U.N. has no authority 
Carbon offsets are licenses to pollute, and there have already 
to enforce any internal national matters. Will governments remove  been serious abuses. The World Bank, which runs various Climate 
harmful subsidies to the fossil fuel and other industries, and redirect  Funds, and has been given temporary control of the new Green 
that money to green investment?  What kinds of sound public  Fund established in Cancun, has a record of environmental damage. 
policies and regulatory frameworks will countries voluntarily put  Friends of the Earth warns that an unregulated market could lead 
in place?
to a tril ion-dol ar “carbon casino”. Subprime mortgages were based 
Can economic growth, the promise that is supposed to woo  on promises to extend home ownership. Some see a direct parallel.
corporations, be decoupled from an increasingly scary environ-
A major issue not addressed by the  Initiative is ecological 
mental footprint?  And how can the world be enticed to adopt  debt. The Global South is demanding justice from the countries 
a value system that will replace the GDP with the Indicators of  most responsible for climate change. They want compensation in 
Well-being that are being developed? 
the form of funding for adaptation to the effects of climate change, 
The people developing the Initiative are talking about huge  transfer of appropriate technology, and climate space. Climate space 
investments  on  the  usual  corporate  scale.  I  see  no  evidence  of  means GHG allowances, under the principle of “common but dif-
Glossary
BAU—Business-As-Usual
2000 to achieve eight anti-poverty goals by 2015.
Carbon  credits—“offsets”  to  GHG  pollution,  bought  and  traded  on  NGOs—Non-governmental organizations, such as QEW.
stock markets.
PES—Payment for Ecosystem Services. See TEEB.
COPConference  of  Parties.  Annual  meetings  of  the  UNFCCC  QEW—Quaker Earthcare Witness, the NGO under which Quaker Eco-
negotiators,  numbered  consecutively,  also  known  by  name  of  city  Bulletin is produced. See the staff box on page 2.
where meeting was held.
REDDReduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a
Copenhagen Accord—Three-page document produced by the U.S. and  carbon credit scheme to save forests and raise money. Those unable or
16 other nations behind closed doors at, but not by, COP15. It is not  unwilling to reduce GHG emissions pay a country to preserve its forests,
an official U.N. document.
by purchasing carbon credits, which can be traded.
Davos—Swiss site of annual meetings of WEF (World Economic Forum).  REDD+—approved  in  Cancun,  allows  “managed”  GMO  plantations  as
Corporations pay $52,000 to $500,000 to join. Political and social leaders  well as preserving old-growth forests; it promises safe-guards (so far
attend by invitation only.
ineffective) for forest peoples and the environment.
GATTGlobal Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has been in place  Rio—Brazilian site of Earth Summit in 1992.
since 1946 and has now been succeeded by the WTO.
Rio + 10—WSSD in Johannesburg in 2002.
GDPGross Domestic Product, the money value of national trade and  Rio + 20—“green economy” Earth Summit to be held in 2012.
services.
SCP—Sustainable Consumption and Production. A 10-year “framework”
GHG—Greenhouse gases. Climate disruption is attributed to the increase  for SCP, including triple bottom line (economic, ecological and social
of GHGs in the atmosphere.
measures),  green  procurement,  cradle-to-cradle  design,  and  waste
Global South—to indicate poor countries, replacing “the third world”.
reduction, will be brought to Rio+20.
Kyoto  Protocol  (KP)—a  treaty  with  binding  GHG  emissions  targets.  TEEB—The  Economics  of  Ecosystems  and  Biodiversity,  a  scientific
Rich countries have not met their promised aid goals under the KP. In  research group of biological and economic experts who estimate the
2012 the KP has been scheduled to go into a second phase, which is  money value of “ecological services” and cost of biodiversity loss.
now seriously threatened.
UNFCCC—U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, produced at
LULUCFLand  Use,  Land  Use  Change  and  Forests,  a  carbon  credit  Rio. It administers the Kyoto Protocol and holds an annual COP.
scheme to manage land use and provide money to participating poor  WEF—World Economic Forum. Not a U.N. body. See Davos.
countries.
WSSDWorld Summit on Sustainable Development, held in 2002, ten
MDGsMillennium Development Goals, a global action plan adopted in  years after Rio.
Quaker Eco-Bulletin 11:4  July-August 2011
3

reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. is party to the UNFCCC,
ferentiated responsibilities”. All are vital to their economic growth 
although not to the KP. Observers say making such a treaty would be
out of poverty. Another issue is whether India’s, China’s, and Brazil’s 
impossible today.
growing economies have already taken them out of underdeveloped 
• U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), and
status, so they should pledge their own GHG reductions.
• U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
What Can Friends Do?
At the end of Rio there was a sense that much had been accomplished, and
How might Quakers respond to the proposed U.N. Green  a euphoria because governments had made good plans and had pledged
Economy Initiative? The Initiative is getting tremendous support,  to carry them through.
even  from  major  corporations  in  the World  Economic  Forum.  1995World Trade Organization (WTO) appeared on the scene. Its
Surely profits will be made. Justice and a healthy planet are less  membership is made up of governments, but it is not part of the U.N. system.
assured.  We need to be alert to signs that the  Initiative is not  It is dominated by the developed nations, addresses international trade and
achieving its stated goals. 
strengthens free-trade globalization. It has closed-door courts to enforce
its rules, no external oversight, and no civil society participation. The WTO
We can provide critical support by insisting on people’s rights,  succeeds the previous General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
appropriate technology transfer, and adequate international aid. 
We  can  “watchdog”,  through  detailed  monitoring,  along  with  1997Kyoto Protocol (KP) was agreed, although it didn’t come into force
other Quaker bodies and NGOs that share our values. Without  until 2005. It was designed with binding world targets for reduction of
GHG, with each nation pledging its fair share “common but differentiated
becoming instant experts we can learn from, support, and cooper- responsibilities” for developed and developing nations. Under President Bill
ate with these groups.
Clinton the U.S. signed the KP, but the Senate refused to ratify it. In 2012
We hope to see an Initiative that aims at real ecojustice, holds  the KP is scheduled to enter a second phase with higher reduction goals.
up the highest standards for right sharing with all species, helps  2000U.N. Global Compact was established with participating businesses
Earth maintain us al , and acknowledges our planet as “a manifesta- that promise to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to
tion of God” as Quaker Earthcare Witness states in our Vision  report on their implementation. The Compact is purely voluntary and has
and Witness statement. We need to ask what is in accord with our  proved useless in fostering sustainability.
testimonies and seek clearness about how to respond.
2000Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were endorsed by the U.N.
There are eight goals with 21 targets (e.g., reduce by half the number of
Mary Gilbert has been a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge,  people in the world suffering from hunger) to be reached by 2015.
Massachusetts, for nearly 35 years. She serves on Monthly and 
Yearly Meeting Earthcare committees, and on the Quaker Earthcare  2002—World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in
Witness Steering Committee. She has represented QEW for the past  Johannesburg. The concentric circles used in Rio were replaced by a three-
11 years at United Nations meetings all over the world. Mary says,  legged stool, with legs representing the environment, civil society and the
“To me, the physical universe is the flesh of God.”
economy, all holding up Sustainable Development. This image suggests no
David Millar, a member of Canadian Yearly Meeting since 1980,  limits to growth; a stool can just get taller.
has clerked several local meetings, including Montreal where he now  Instead of producing new agreements between governments, the WSSD was
lives. He taught in all regions of Canada and, since retiring in 2005,  organized around almost 300 “partnership initiatives” as the key means
has been active as a representative to Kairoscanada, Le Réseau  to achieving the MDGs. NGOs were distressed because the partnerships
œcuménique justice et paix (ROJeP) Quebec and QEW Steering  would be set up with “legs” of unequal power, another three-legged stool:
Committee (UN support group and Outreach).
source of funding, government, and civil society. It was clear that corporate
interests dominated at Johannesburg, and would continue to dominate as
Timeline 
partnerships were developed.
1972—U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm,  2009—COP15 was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. High hopes were raised
marked  the  beginning  of  political  and  public  awareness  of  global  around the world, but on the last night the secretly written “Copenhagen
environmental problems.
Accord” was presented. The Accord differs from the KP in having no overall
1987—World  Economic  Forum  began  its  annual  meetings.  Over  1000  reduction goal and no agreed fair shares. It promotes bilateral rather than
corporate heads gather in Davos to discuss future plans. They invite political  global agreement. Some consider it a recipe for chaos and unfairness,
leaders. The general public has no voice. 
and guaranteeing dangerous increases in global temperature. The angry
1992—World  Business  Council  for  Sustainable  Development  (WBCSD)  plenary group “noted”, but emphatically did not adopt the Accord. REDD 
began as a lobby composed of the largest non-fossil multinationals, and  was approved without safeguards. Between COPs 15 and 16 the U.S. denied
participates in some U.N. planning. The Initiative tries to enlist both WBCSD  previously awarded grant monies to countries that would not sign onto the
and carbon-market financiers as allies, against the forces of BAU—the fossil  non-binding Copenhagen Accord.
fuel companies, energy-intensive industry, those whose jobs or power gain  2010—COP16 was held in Cancun, Mexico. Rich countries scuttled the KP.
from resisting change.
First Japan, then more countries, joined the U.S. in refusing to sign onto
1992Earth  Summit  (Rio)  was  a  major,  two-week  conference  held  in  Phase 2 of the KP. All countries, except Bolivia, agreed to a package deal
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to forge practical, internationally agreed plans to  that would allow climate change of +2°C. Cancún also gave “temporary”
make sure that the biosphere would not be further damaged. A graphic  charge of new Green Climate Funds to the World Bank.
was  created,  three  concentric  circles. The  outermost  circle  was  called  2011—UNEP’s Green Economy Report was announced by Ban Ki-Moon at
planetary wealth, the middle circle represented societal wealth and the  Davos in January, and officially launched at the U.N. in February.
innermost circle, economic wealth.  That graphic showed the economy as
“owned” by human society, all within the limits of the planet, our primary  2011—COP17 will meet in December in Durban, South Africa. The U.S. and
source and support.
Europe have already announced they will refuse to sign the next phase
of the Kyoto Protocol. Ban Ki-Moon has ended his direct involvement in
At Rio, 178 governments produced the Rio Declaration, which says all the  climate negotiations. His focus is now on Sustainable Development, i.e.
right things. Outcomes of the Earth Summit include:
the Green Economy Initiative.
• Agenda  21  is  a  40-chapter  comprehensive  blueprint  of  action  for
sustainability.
2012—U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development  (Rio + 20) will be
• U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) developed  held in June, again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but will last only three days,
the now-threatened Kyoto Protocol under which nations pledged to  in contrast to the two-week Rio meeting in 1992.

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