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FEATURE: Postcard from Geneva – ‘The Green Economy and Sustainable Development – Bringing Back the Social Dimension’

By Tristan Stubbs, CDKN Global Communications Officer

It was the biggest event UNRISD (the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) had hosted in its 48-year history. ‘Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension’ attracted 700 applicants for registration, and over 300 abstracts in its call for papers.

The scale of interest reflected the importance of the issues debated in Geneva last week. The opening address by Sarah Cook, UNRISD’s Director, laid out the challenges. Has policy up to now paid insufficient attention to the ‘triad’ of crises – energy and food security, jobless growth, climate change and global governance – that will have most bearing on sustainable development? How do we ensure we prevent the social dimensions of climate change forming part of a hollow ‘wish list’ that policy-makers fail to act upon? Can we tackle the ‘double injustice’ – where those who are least responsible for climate change stand to be worst affected by its impacts – while achieving the ‘double dividend’: helping the environment without harming the economy?

Much of the two-day discussion focused on what to prioritise in the face of this ‘triple crisis’. With many potentially competing interests at play, decision-makers will have to build consensus for action – indeed, as Bob Jessop of Lancaster University suggested, whoever is first to win support for their interpretation of the climate crisis will get to decide how to frame the response. This will mean both building alliances for social action, and reducing the complexity of the science – breaking climate change down to its ecological, financial and social impacts.

It also means getting stakeholders involved. We heard how climate resilience has been threatened in sub-Saharan Africa by poor policy implementation, and how change is more likely when international negotiations and national policy cohere with the local. In large countries like Brazil, as Hironobu Sano of the Federal University at Rio Grande do Norte explained, this will involve more dialogue between different levels of government in federal structures. Policy-makers should also recognise that small to medium-sized towns have a role to play in sustainable development – not just megacities.

And yet the shift to new technologies will itself create new challenges for social development. Our understanding of labour rights and social standards currently focuses on traditional industries, not renewable technologies, argued Carola Kantz of IFOK Consulting. We need to make sure the poorest countries don’t miss out on the advantages of any green transition. China is planning to spend significant sums on developing green technology; audience members suggested that the World Bank could do much to help smaller economies manage this shift. And when demand for electricity in countries like South Africa is expected to double over the next two decades, what can governments do to make renewable energy as cheap, reliable and effective a choice as coal? A carbon tax and high electricity tariffs would help, but a number of speakers underlined how carbon taxes can be regressive. Applied without caution, too often they hit the poorest hardest.

In the final session, Stephen Hale, Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director at Oxfam, warned us that effective policy was at its base a knowledge management issue. Original thought doesn’t lead to action in and of itself. To have the desired influence, we need to consider first what leads to the take-up of action. The challenge, then, is for researchers to think more about their audience, and ask themselves why they’re doing research.

UNRISD Deputy Director Peter Utting had the last word. It’s vital that practitioners, activists and researchers break out of their disciplinary silos: we need joined-up analysis, and joined-up policy. This was an ambitious call; but it was an appropriate way to end an ambitious and productive conference.

All papers and presentations are available here. The conference agenda is here.

Solar energy is used to light village shop. Sri Lanka. Photo: © Dominic Sansoni / World Bank

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