Much of this drive is coming from the EU and the OECD, but it is also a critique that is spreading in both the north and south. In this piece, Barbara Unmuessige examines the potential role that Rio+20 could play.

In June 2012, heads of state will gather at the Rio+20 conference in Brazil to explore the theme “The Future We Want.” The focus of the conference is the green economy. Exactly what a green economy is and should be, and with what measures and instruments it should be implemented, has not yet been defined and is the topic of intense political debate. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to develop a “Green Economy Roadmap.” Rio+20 should not simply be a repetition of previous international conferences. Instead it must offer a true breakthrough on the path to a social, just, low-carbon and resource-efficient world.

The UN General Assembly called with Resolution 44/228 of December 22, 1989, for the convening of the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Summit, in 1992. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was assigned to promote the transition from an economic model that is nearly exclusively oriented toward the promotion of economic growth to a model based on the principles of sustainable development in which environmental protection and the sound management of natural resources play a central role. Some 20 years later, at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), held from June 20 to 22, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, the goal was to create a “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” This represents a new attempt to reform the institutional framework for sustainable development within the UN.

Government delegations from all over the world thus meet at UN conferences again and again to tackle the ecological and social state of the planet, to give “sustainable development” a new boost, and to  strengthen the institutional fabric of the fragmented UN environmental architecture—and that is good. However, it is fair to assume that Rio+20 will not emanate the vibrancy and dynamic of the 1992 Earth Summit. The preparatory process is sluggish and is evolving without any significant mobilisation of public or civil society. The latter takes note of the process, yet recognises (rightly so) that in the context of a UN conference and in light of extreme asymmetries in political and economic powers and interests, a debate on a fundamentally new economic and social paradigm as a response to and way out of multiple crises (financial and economic crises, climate change, food insecurity and poverty) cannot be had.

A Chance to Move Beyond Growth

The critique of the growth model, demands for another economic paradigm, and the desire for new prosperity models and lifestyles are all themes that are no longer limited to specific social niches or academic circles. Building on the analyses and concepts of the 70s and 80s of the limits of growth and the growth trap, a new search for economic and social alternatives to the existing (financial) market capitalism is underway.

New and old suggestions—such as prosperity without growth and what a post-growth economy might look like—are being revived and taken up again with great interest. Moreover, the discourse is no longer limited to the industrialised North. Extensive social debates have taken shape, especially in Latin America (e.g., Buen Vivir), as have social movements and publications condemning the prevailing economic order (many of which are publicly discussed in emerging nations)—together showing that a fundamental critique of the production and consumption model is mounting and that the search for alternatives is once again on the rise.

For some time, these more in-depth analytical debates have been infused with the additional debate on the green economy. This debate is led by regional and international associations—such as the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and certain UN organisations as a response to climate change, the increasing shortage of certain resources, and (in part) the food crisis. The concepts proposed by UNEP and OECD comprise the contributions of these organisations to Rio+20, and will be examined in the following.

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