Green Growth is Inspiring but Not Watertight

Aishwarya Nair is a Master of Environmental Studies student at Penn, with a focus on Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management. She is currently researching solutions for sustainable electrification in rural areas in the developing world and the redesigning of the grid system. This post is re-posted from the blog from the World Water Forum 2012.

Each conference comes with its own set of catchphrases and the World Water Forum is no exception. A popular one that’s been buzzing around is “the new industrial revolution” or as it’s colloquially known, “green growth“. Coined in 2008, the definition of green growth differs depending on who’s using it. In general, green growth refers to the idea of furthering economic growth within the limits of the natural ecosystem without detracting from the possibility for future development. But even after having over 22 hours devoted to green growth development, with stakeholders present from across the spectrum, it is the silence on certain issues that could sink this new possible engine of economic growth.

Before dwelling on the negative aspects, it is important to give praise where praise is due. It has been excellent to see that the words “profit” and “business” are finally being included in discussions about sustainability albeit cautiously. While it is important to hear recommendations from international and national organisations on policy and subsidy reforms, if a forum is to be inclusive of all stakeholders, then the interests of the investor must also be acknowledged. If anything, the inclusion of these interests could help improve the lifespan and success of development initiatives. Though the high panels still remain woefully thin of private financiers, it has been encouraging to see the first steps towards restructuring finance being taken.

Another admirable aspect has been the shift in discussion towards maintenance. Simon Upton, Head of the Environment Directorate at the OECD, stressed the importance of considering maintenance costs of infrastructure into any talk about investment into infrastructure. “For every $1 invested into infrastructure,” said Mr. Upton; “we need an additional $3 to maintain it.” This, in its very essence, is sustainable development; not just the installation of a water pump in a village that will break down and thus be abandoned in a few years, but planning for its preservation over its lifespan. Recognising this need for maintenance will help go a long way to making smarter budgets that include sustainable financing for green growth projects.

The Achilles heel of the green growth strategy remains, however, that behaviour change remains very much absent from the table. The premise of most of the work done by development organisations is providing basic services to those who have little or none. However, once this target is reached, there is no evidence that shows that this new base of consumers will behave responsibly. On the contrary, with less worry about access, it is far more likely – and history has shown this to be true – that wasteful behaviour will increase.

Thus we come to the paradox of sustainable development. Addressing this vital issue is not easy either. Change is hard and changing human behaviour is even harder. For those amongst us who have attempted to be more “green” in their consumption – or just give up a bad habit – we know that it entails sacrifice and denial. And how do we ask those who have never had anything, to deny themselves when finally, they feel they have a right to enjoy life? Yet, without this denial, without thoughtful consumption, sustainability will fail. This is the next subject that must be addressed if green growth is to be the new industrial growth model. To ignore or to exclude it from the discussion spells its doom before its success.


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