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OPINION: Can the green economy save us?

In an article for the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, Rina Saeed Khan reflects following a vist by Barbara Unmuessig, the President of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS), on the potential of a ‘green economy’ in Pakistan

The world is not in a good shape at the moment – food prices are rising, fresh water is depleting, energy prices are soaring, biodiversity is dying out, intense storms are damaging towns and cities, while floods and droughts are threatening the livelihoods of millions. Clearly, climate change is playing a major role in taking its toll on human populations, just as the scientists had predicted it would. And the rate of change is accelerating. That means the chance of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is getting slimmer. Scientists say that if the earth warms more than 2 degrees then we will not be able to avoid runaway climate change that will be catastrophic. In Pakistan, climate change is not a future prediction but a present reality with devastating consequences given the extensive flooding that is beginning to occur annually during the monsoon season. For the past two years, Pakistan has topped the list of the Global Climate Risk Index produced by Germanwatch, a non-governmental organisation that works on global equity issues.

In 2010, Pakistan was listed as the number one country in the world affected by climate related disasters; in 2011 it was ranked as number three.

The United Nations-led negotiations on a new global agreement to curb climate change have stalled after the massive momentum that was built up just before the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit held in 2009. The summit proved to be a major disappointment and soon after the week the Copenhagen Accord was signed, the urgency was gone from the talks. There is a worldwide recession at the moment and affluent countries, especially the US, don’t want to take any actions that they think will slow down their economies further. “I see multilateralism going nowhere,” remarked Barbara Unmuessig, the President of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS), a German green political foundation. Barbara, who has been involved with environmental issues for more than 20 years, was visiting Pakistan recently. “We need to rethink our strategy at the local and national level, and put pressure on our politicians to go in the right direction”. She gave the example of how German citizens put pressure on their political leadership to get rid of nuclear power and substitute it with renewable energy. Today Germany, which is a highly industrialised country, has an extensive renewable energy system. Her advice to Pakistan, especially given its current energy crisis: “What are the solutions? Try to build your own green economy. In such a large country you can build your own renewable energy industry”.

Green economy is the new buzzword that is replacing “sustainable development” in the global arena. The concept of the green economy was first created in 2008 to get governments to spend money on the environment and in 2009 it was presented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as a way forward in response to the global financial crisis. The idea behind it was to shift investments away from business as usual to green activities making economic sense. Scientists have been calling for a major shift to clean energy technologies and energy efficiency in order to curb carbon emissions causing climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their special report on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation called for nations around the globe to invest heavily in renewable energy to bring down prices and make it more affordable to everyone.

Many experts had pinned high hopes on last year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, which had a theme of “green economy”. The Rio+20 conference (it had been 20 years since the last Earth Summit was held in Rio) failed to deliver anything substantive, however. Barbara had warned in a paper published just before the Rio conference, “Rio+20 must be more than just a repetition of previous international conferences – it must offer a true breakthrough to a social, just, low-carbon and resource efficient world”. Unfortunately, there was no sincere political will, either in the North or the South to do this and today the “business as usual, the ‘brown’ resource intensive development path, prevails”. Hence, Barbara questions whether the green economy is “the new magic bullet”? In her view, “UNEP’s green economy concept contains nothing that could revolutionise the (global) economy”.

Perhaps the solution is that: “We don’t have to follow big business, we can implement good solutions along with less consumption of resources”. She is clear that the green economy must benefit people and not big businesses and that wasteful consumption patterns and lifestyles (especially in the North) must change. “We need to rethink development to preserve nature, feed people and make lives better”. She is clear, however, that it is politics that has to set the standards, limits and goals. We urgently need institutions and decision makers who can make planet Earth deliver for the future.


The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at

This article first appeared on 

CDKN is supporting 24 print, TV, radio and web journalists in South Asia under a Panos ‘South Asia Climate Change Award’ (SACCA) Fellowship.  This is part of a 24-month CDKN project on building climate change awareness in the South Asia media.

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