UN convenes on climate change and ‘green economy’

By Kaia Roemer

Kaia Roemer ’12 traveled to Bonn, Germany in early September to take part in the 64th Annual United Nations Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organizations Conference. The following are two of the articles that Roemer produced about the conference, which was themed “Sustainable Societies; Responsive Citizens.” Green economy—a sure thing? Every year the United Nations holds the Annual United Nations Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organizations Conference, at which non-governmental organizations from all over the world come together to discuss urgent global issues and initiate change. Usually held in New York City, this year’s Conference was held in Bonn, Germany. Following the theme “Sustainable Societies; Responsive Citizens” the Conference focused on climate change and the urgency for a green economy. The attendees of the Conference asserted that it is imperative for the world economy to become a green economy. There are no alternatives if the world should continue to maintain a population of billions. The challenge is to steer the boat back into the right direction in time, before the planet becomes unsustainable for its citizens. These notions prevailed in the talks, roundtables and discussions of the attendees and keynote speakers. Ten months prior to the anticipated Rio +20 Conference, a UN conference on sustainable development that will take place in Brazil in June 2012, the urgency for rapid change in lifestyles and economies was a focal point during the events of the Conference. For Nick Nuttall, Head of Media for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and moderator of Roundtable II, the question was not whether the world economy will become a green economy or not, but whether it will do so in time. In his opinion, the change to a green economy will happen by default, due to ample scientific evidence that the only alternative would be a total global crisis and a world incapable of sustaining life. Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya International and speaker at the opening ceremony of the Conference agreed that both the economic and the ecologic crises are making alternatives imperative. The unstable current economy in Nuttall’s eyes is not a hindrance to the transition of a green economy, but a complementation. “You have to look at the much bigger picture,” said Nuttall. “Green economy is already happening. The future will design itself so we need to design it now.” Katharina Weinert, representative of the United Nations Association of Germany, noted that it is important to realize that green economy is a growth in economy. Acting in the interest of saving our environment is acting economically. According to Nuttall, Japan showed us how the self-designing green economy works. Due to the lack of local fuel resources the Japanese had no choice but to drive fuel efficient cars. This type of compulsion will continue to drive the world. According to Nuttall, by actively speeding up the transition to a green economy – a transition strongly dependent on government regulations – we can now make the inevitable new design happen in an intelligent and sustainable way. “Money goes where the profit is,” said Nuttall. “When the economy becomes green investors will follow.” Bedrich Moldan, former Minister of Environment in the Czech Republic said that nevertheless, for a green economy to happen, everyone’s needs and ideas need to be met. According to Moldan, it is not effective to confine discussions and decisions to organizations sitting in conference rooms. “Nobody in this room has the power to say ‘you must’ to the citizens, who are taking care of their every day jobs,” said Moldan. “To achieve change we have to meet everyone’s needs.” This difficulty was also recognized by Weinert, who said that climate protection is double-tracked. “Much of the development in India and China which happened for the nations’ well-being, did have costs on the environment,” she said. Daniel Mittler, Political Advisor with Greenpeace International and panelist of Roundtable II was optimistic about the transition to a green economy. According to him, Nike, Puma and Adidas have agreed to cut back on environmentally hazardous production. “There is a glowing business voice for a real change,” Mittler said. “Yes, we are on the bridge to a green economy.” Evidence that the transition to a green economy is happening was brought up many times with the example of Germany. At a press conference prior to the opening ceremony, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP applauded Germany as a pro-active player towards the green economy by closing its nuclear plants. Shiva also applauded Germany as a prime example of how civic action translated into governmental pressure which then became governmental regulations. According to her, this buildup from the bottom to the top is the key to speed up the process of achieving a green economy. The challenge is to attain a green economy before time runs out. Bernward Geier, Coordinator of the German NGO Focal Group stated that “If we don’t make a significant difference in the upcoming Rio +20, maybe that will have been the last chance.” Taking Action from the Bottom Up: Press Conference with Vandana Shiva Civic engagement must be the driving force behind governmental change that results in a safer, more humane and environmentally conscious society. Time is running out. We must act now. That was the message that Shiva delivered. Shiva said the problem of sustainability is tied to the many other economic problems the world is facing. “Both the economic and ecological crises are making alternatives imperative,” she said. The most immediate change that needs to take place is consumers’ perception about the cost of a sustainable lifestyle. Chemically-processed food is cheap due to the regulations established by national governments. Chemically-enhanced food is not less expensive to produce than organically grown food. This “false cheap” as Shiva calls it, is a bi-product of subsidies to food processors rather than farmers. The link between consumer and farmer must be more direct, because organically grown food is cheaper than processed items. “Subsidies are making costly food cheap and affordable food costly,” she says. This awareness alone does not make organic food more affordable for everyone at the grocery store – and this is where civic engagement is a crucial step toward changing governmental subsidies. Ignoring or lacking information about issues such as the creation of genetically modified foods are excuses we make to ourselves, Shiva said. “I know enough that I don’t want to eat poisoned food!” she said. “And we are not paying the government taxes to poison our food.” Civic engagement is not an illusion, conference particicipants opined. It can be transformed into political pressure that can result in a change in political regulation supporting a sustainable society. An example of this process is Germany’s recent withdrawal from the use of nuclear power. According to Shiva, we can see the evidence of failing sustainability everywhere, but we can also see that a functional sustainable society is not an illusion. Such change can happen. “The government must be forced by citizens to take a certain measure of action,” she said.