A win-win approach to sustainable development?

Author:Resnick, Danielle
Position:Case study

The concept of 'green growth' is one which has understandable political currency, highlighted by its prominence in this year's Rio+20 meeting hosted by the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. In promising to reconcile the goals of low-carbon and sustainable development with other valued outcomes--such as job creation, poverty reduction, and economic growth--it appears to offer a win-win solution for confronting the growing threat of climate change. This is the tenor of many recent reports on the concept, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Towards Green Growth (2011) or the United Nations Environment Programme's Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication: A Synthesis for Policy Makers (2011).

In our recent article on 'The Political Economy of Green Growth: Cases from Southern Africa', we question how 'win-win' green growth actually is, and argue that it may pose more trade-offs than is readily acknowledged when scaled up into national development strategies. Specifically, reducing carbon emissions remains a key component of green growth strategies but achieving this often requires countries to deviate from the course recommended by traditional development theory, as well as from their current development trajectory The high short-term costs of green growth agendas can have a similar political impact as the structural adjustment programmes of the previous decades, which generated substantial anti-reform coalitions that often included both powerful interest groups as well as the poor. Using case studies of South Africa, Malawi, and Mozambique, we argue that the same reality confronts the green growth agenda in the absence of concurrent interventions by donors to protect those who stand to lose from the implementation of these reforms.

Electricity and coal in South Africa

South Africa's growth strategy has historically relied on exploitation of its substantial coal deposits, state investment in the energy sector, and subsidized electricity prices. Coal accounts for almost all of the country's electricity supply, which needs to double over the next two decades in order to meet growing demand, and close service delivery gaps. Clearly a coal-based development strategy is incompatible with the green growth agenda. South Africa's per capita emission levels are already similar to those of the European Union, despite its per capita incomes being three times...

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