I often find myself sitting in a meeting or workshop being bombarded by words and concepts such as sustainable development, sustainability green, green economy, green infrastructure, low-carbon, low-carbon economy and other fashionable jargon.
The meaning of sustainable development and the concept of sustainability had always been pretty clear to me. However recently as the focus on sustainable development, environmental degradation and climate change has increased sustainable development and sustainability morphed into “naughty words” and everyone started fixating on climate change, low-carbon and “green” instead. There are various reasons for this one of which is probably due to overuse and green wash and misdirected energies within the sector. As a result green economy, green jobs, green infrastructure, low-carbon economy … etc … became the ‘words/ concepts’ du jour. Unfortunately, each of these words and concepts translate differently depending on the context within which they are being used.
This lack of agreement on the meaning of the terms is likely one of the reasons that we seem to be unable to resolve any of the genuine sustainable development (environmental and social and economic) issues that we face or achieve the sustainability goals that we are working towards. This may also be one of the reasons that there is so much green wash and so many well intended (green, low-carbon, climate resilient etc) projects which result in impacts that are not necessarily sustainable.
In the diagram below I try to explain (broadly) the inter-relationship between the concepts of sustainable development, low-carbon economy and the green economy.
Sustainable Development covers the social, economic and environmental issues and aims to ensure that social, environmental and economic needs etc are met in the most efficient and effective manner while retaining the integrity of ecological and social systems.
Issues of “green” outside of a sustainable context have a narrower focus on environmental issues. The green economy focuses on environmental issues only so far as there are potential economic benefits to its direct stakeholders. In many instances this has resulted in negative social impacts due to the lack of an integrated approach towards genuine sustainability, and the co-opting of sustainability as an economic fundamental, as more important than anything else. Anything that is economically sustainable is hardly ever socially or ecologically sustainable in today’s world.
In the same way that a low-carbon economy is aimed at reducing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change effects, it has a narrower focus on carbon emission reduction and the facilitation of economic growth. This does not necessarily mean that such an economy is necessarily green, sustainable or beneficial to society.The focus on carbon ignores all the other emissions from a fossil-led economy, or its vast (mostly negative) social impacts. Beginning from health impacts and stretching to fewer jobs that suit production, but little else.
This lack of clear and accepted definition, understanding and the interchangeability of terms and concepts among actors and stakeholders in the sustainable development sector is a key contributor to the poor progress being made in the implementation of the sustainable development agenda. The lack of a clear definition and understanding has resulted in a duplication of efforts, misdirected energies and people talking past each other. What we need are focused definitions and the implementation of actions that facilitate development that is beneficial to the environment, society and the economy. What we do not need is more workshops, discussions and meeting on what needs to be done ……..etc
In the words of Gro Harlem Brundtland;
“Fundamentally, sustainable development is a notion of discipline. It means humanity must ensure that meeting present needs does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”