World Economy
The Fate of the ‘Green Agenda’: Does Multilateralism Have a Future?

The “Green Agenda” has different connotations in different parts of the world. This further leads to a huge divergence in the delineation of what constitutes a “green recovery” from the pandemic. Multilateralism can be helpful when dealing with an overarching and uniform delineation of the “Green Agenda”, the developmental needs and nuances of the conservation-development-livelihood dynamics of various parts of the developing and underdeveloped world are acknowledged. Otherwise, multilateralism will only cater to the needs of the rich, and will be inimical to distributive justice at the global scale.

The core post-pandemic development priority of the developing world is the promotion of economic growth. Growth-fetishism rules the roost in large parts of the developing world despite commitments of many to reach “net-zero” emissions by their own stipulated timelines. A conflict arises here, as it is universally acknowledged that global warming and climate change are the results of humanity’s unbridled penchant for economic growth without accounting for the “costs of growth”. Again, most of the developing world climate commitments hinge upon an energy transition from fossil fuel sources to renewable energy sources! Large parts of the global south, led by the BRICS nations, still perceive that a mere energy transition will resolve the problems of climate change. Therefore, they continue with unbridled changes in land-use, destroying the ecosystem in order to meet infrastructure needs. Amid this unbridled penchant for economic growth and urbanisation, there hardly remains the acknowledgement that forest and coastal ecosystems are carbon sinks, whose roles in stocking carbon and annual carbon sequestration cannot be substituted via a mere energy transition. Rather, such unbridled land-use change for infrastructure projects counteract the positive impacts that would otherwise be obtained through an energy transition.

As such, the “Green Agenda” has different connotations in different parts of the world. This further leads to a huge divergence in the delineation of the “green recovery” from the pandemic. Here lies the problem: a uniform interpretation of ‘green recovery’ has been rendered across the world. Now, the OECD agenda for green recovery rests on three priorities:

  • inhibit the spread and eradicate the virus;

  • create enabling conditions for broad-based recovery; and

  • create opportunities to kick-off economic growth, while simultaneously pursuing “decade of action” priorities to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The OECD and many others have argued that climate action creates opportunities for economic growth, incomes and jobs. It is in this context that the OECD expresses “… The challenges ahead are too significant for any one country to tackle them alone. Only through collective action will we be able to address them and ‘build back better’ towards more resilient, more inclusive and greener economies and societies”. In the process, the OECD argues that multilateralism is the answer to these challenges. This has been reinforced by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, in a speech to the Earth Institute at Columbia University in 2020. 

The above thesis therefore propagates that while “green growth” is the solution to preventing the degradation of the natural ecosystem and reconciling between developmental ambitions and conservation goals, it is achievable only through multilateralism. Here, the bigger concern is with the very definition of “green growth”. If “green growth” is only delineated through a mere energy transition, whereas the ecosystem destruction goes unbridled in the name of urbanisation and economic growth, then definitely “green growth” is an oxymoron!

This contention becomes prominent when one notes the decoupling of the use of natural resources and economic growth. Is such a delinking practically possible? It is not merely practically impossible, but even axiomatically infeasible as human life and livelihoods and civilisational progress are inextricably connected to the most fundamental form of capital: natural capital, which is presented in classical economics as land! In a 2016 paper published in PLOS ONE titled “Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?”, Ward et al devise an analytical macro-model to infer that “… growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. … The mounting costs of “uneconomic growth” suggest that the pursuit of decoupling–if it were possible–in order to sustain GDP growth would be a misguided effort”.

The above argument becomes even more prominent in the case of land or natural capital, especially in the developing world. Pawan Sukhdev’s paper “Costing the Nature” in Nature in 2009 addressed the importance of natural capital in providing ecosystem services (services provided by the natural ecosystem through its organic working, free of cost) which was interpreted as the “GDP of the poor”. This phenomenon is prevalent especially in the global South, as a large component of the poor’s income emerges from the ecosystem services. The paper revealed that 57% of the poor’s income in India comes from nature. Some recent assessments in southern Asia also revealed that the ecosystem dependency of the poor is significantly higher than average per capita income-earning household. Therefore, the extensive land-use change causes losses to the well-being of the poor.

Unfortunately, the impacts of human interventions through land-use change and climate change on ecosystem services are not figured into any form of global negotiations. The climate negotiations remain largely a “temperature-centric” one without taking into consideration this critical element that should have been the foremost concern of the global South. Somehow, the large developing nations (especially the BRICS) exhibit an uncanny stoic silence on this issue. Further even, in the context of climate financing, there has been an inherent bias against adaptation and in favour of mitigation, with more than 80 percent of the funding getting into climate-change mitigation activities. Such biases against funding adaptation projects are inimical to the needs of the least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDs).

Degrowth is not a panacea for the developing world

On the other hand, the Degrowth school propagates deceleration rather than growth to sustain the very fundamental basis of life on the planet, thereby proposing it as the solution for the world. As opposed to green growth, the degrowth school is convinced that growth cannot be accommodated when conservation goals are being promited. Therefore, the “Green Agenda” of the degrowth school advocates he renunciation of the present ways of living in the global North through the contraction of economic activities that exist in a business-as-usual scenario.

Given this occidental construct of degrowth that also finds its supporters among some “elitist activists” in the global South, can a developing nation afford to adopt such ideals? The answer is definitely in the negative! The Sri Lankan economy is undergoing a food crisis (apart from other forms of economic and political turmoil) precisely because of their sudden transformative change to organic farming, which has halved food production. Furthermore, dwindling forex reserves have inhibited food imports. It needs to be understood that for degrowth to be adopted, some initial conditions need to be satisfied. The idea is not only emanating from spaces that have already grown, but from a world that is more equitable than the global South, where strong social security and distributive justice are already in place. This is missing in most of the developing world. 

Multilateralism and the Green Agenda

Multilateralism was challenged globally even before the pandemic, with the emergence of strong leaders propagating nationalistic fervour. This also led to the insulating tendencies of some of the major world economies that were once heralded as championing the cause of free markets and globalisation. Examples of such deglobalising and insulating tendencies include the US withdrawal from the TPP, the prolongation of the US-China trade war, former US President Trump’s disregard of the Climate Change crisis, and Brexit. On the other hand, China’s “market imperialistic” Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was attempted to be combatted by some coalitions like the “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific – a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies, Australia, India, Japan, and the US.

While it was also apprehended that the pandemic would lead to the further insulation of economies, the world is witnessing the creation of blocs either for trade, or for geoeconomic or geostrategic purposes. Under such circumstances, what role can multilateralism play in promoting the “Green Agenda”? It is well appreciated that there are global concerns, especially with the “global commons”, i.e. climate change. As stated earlier, global problems with a global common goal demand concerted efforts: multilateralism is definitely the answer to that. At the same time, it needs to be understood that the delineation of the “Green Agenda” cannot be identical across the world, given the differential levels of development of nations and the criticality of the practices and institutions governing their developmental and conservation goals, as argued earlier. Global negotiation platforms like the COP have led to some form of reductionism in the climate negotiation discourse – it has reduced everything to a “temperature-centric” paradigm on the basis of a timeline. Developing and underdeveloped nations have of course talked of history and “just transition” in this process, but they have yet to introduce concerns regarding ecosystem services in this discussion. Multilateralism can be helpful when with an overarching and uniform delineation of the “Green Agenda”, the developmental needs and nuances of the conservation-development-livelihoods dynamics of various parts of the developing and underdeveloped are acknowledged. Otherwise, multilateralism will only cater to the needs of the rich, and will be inimical to distributive justice at the global scale.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.