Thinking critically about the green economy, conflict and environmental justice

by Amber Huff, Institute of Development Studies / STEPS Centre

With this recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the announcement of a new international climate agreement not far away, the intersections of environment, economy and development are at the forefront of policy discussions and media commentary.

At such a moment, it is crucial to examine not only the high-level decisions being made, but also to critically explore proposed strategies for mitigating crisis and achieving a more just and sustainable future.

Since the late 2000s, concerns over overlapping crises of food, feed, fuel and finance have been accompanied by growing calls for comprehensive policies to counter climate change, environmental degradation and increasing global inequalities in wealth and access to resources. In response to this, in the lead-up to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio +20, the ‘green economy’ emerged as a dominant, yet politically controversial, policy approach for achieving global transitions toward sustainability.

Green reforms

The Green Economy approach involves a number of recommendations and policy tools for mainstreaming environmental concerns in national-level policy and for mitigating (addressing the causes of) and adapting to (dealing with the consequences of) global climate change.

A key aspect of the mitigation strategies centres on incorporating policy reforms that facilitate international investment and trade, through compliance and voluntary schemes, in a variety of ‘natural capital’ products and services. These are based on assessing, accounting for, and ‘pricing’ intact and healthy terrestrial and marine ecosystems and their functions, particularly in resource-rich lower-income countries.

Market logic

The logic underlying the practice is that economic growth and environmental preservation are only compatible when the environmental functions are priced and marketed correctly.

Some of the programmes and schemes included in the approach will sound familiar. These include carbon credit schemes, such as those facilitated under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto protocol and REDD+, a global mechanism negotiated under the UNFCCC in 2005, which provides funding to pay forest owners in the Global South for carbon saved or not emitted into the atmosphere.

Others may be less familiar, such as policies that include or incentives for private companies to establish ‘no net loss’ biodiversity offsetting projects. These aim to compensate for environmental harm caused by industrial or mining activities in particular areas.

Promising the ‘triple win’

The appeal of this comprehensive approach comes from a set of policy promises termed the ‘triple-win’: achieving environmental sustainability, socially inclusive economic growth and poverty alleviation.

For the international community, these reforms propose to make the global economy and the global environment ‘work’ to support one another, while providing offsetting mechanisms to mitigate environmentally destructive activities.

For lower-income countries with large endowments of natural resources, these schemes promise new means of financing national development programmes and preserving natural ecosystems, which have become increasingly framed in policy discussions in terms of capital assets.

On a local level, these policies promise to lead to new programmes that will preserve natural resources, enhance livelihoods, increase resilience in the face of environmental hazards, and generate streams of income (co-benefits) for cash-strapped local communities.


Yet these policies and claims are rightly controversial for many reasons. For example, among members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), there are many practical realities and constraints to mainstreaming green economy principles throughout existing national institutions and policies. These very real challenges include technocratic gridlock; lack of institutional capacity; lack of access to financial, technical and human resources and an over-dependence of the region and member states on international donor funding.

One of the most pressing areas of concern relates to local social and environmental impacts of projects associated with global pricing and trading mechanisms, including their demonstrated potential to foster inequitable property regimes. These can lead to ‘green grabs’ that restructure relationships between people and the state, entail loss of livelihoods for family farmers and artisans, displace people from their homes and foment local conflicts over access to resources, territory and financial benefits.

Uncertainty and conflict

On a basic level, top-down programming for the green economy often occurs without guidance on means of assessing the potential for conflicts, trade-offs, costs and synergies to arise as projects are implemented.

Outcomes for local development and ecosystems are uncertain. Many projects and certification schemes lack transparency. And empirical studies that critically evaluate local outcomes and examine claims of the ‘triple win’ for particular projects and programmes are rare.

In practice, this undermines efforts to achieve goals of social justice, enhanced livelihoods, poverty alleviation and, ultimately, environmental sustainability.

Resource conflicts, which are both fueled by and exacerbate explicit, implicit and structural forms of violence, can escalate quickly in situations of highly uneven political and economic power, in which some groups of stakeholders are perceived to unfairly, and with little accountability, exert their interests over those of others.

Because of the distribution of roles and responsibilities across stakeholder groups discussed above, the bureaucratic complexity of green mainstreaming and reform, and the high stakes of these policy reforms for donors, governments, investors, and, most crucially, local actors, when conflicts do emerge, they are not limited to local arenas. They can cross scales and be catalyzed at multiple jurisdictional levels.

Understanding the context and relationships among green economy policy reforms, the pricing and capitalization of natural ecosystems, and emerging areas of struggle and conflict will be pivotal in achieving sustainable policy reform and coordinated action.

Amber Huff is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and a member of the ESRC STEPS Centre.

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