Green Growth is Inspiring but Not Watertight

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Each conference comes with its own set of catchphrases and the World Water Forum is no exception. A popular one that’s been buzzing around is “the new industrial revolution” or as it’s colloquially known, “green growth“. Coined in 2008, the definition of green growth differs depending on who’s using it. In general, green growth refers to the idea of furthering economic growth within the limits of the natural ecosystem without detracting from the possibility for future development. But even after having over 22 hours devoted to green growth development, with stakeholders present from across the spectrum, it is the silence on certain issues that could sink this new possible engine of economic growth.

Before dwelling on the negative aspects, it is important to give praise where praise is due. It has been excellent to see that the words “profit” and “business” are finally being included in discussions about sustainability albeit cautiously. While it is important to hear recommendations from international and national organisations on policy and subsidy reforms, if a forum is to be inclusive of all stakeholders, then the interests of the investor must also be acknowledged. If anything, the inclusion of these interests could help improve the lifespan and success of development initiatives. Though the high panels still remain woefully thin of private financiers, it has been encouraging to see the first steps towards restructuring finance being taken.

Another admirable aspect has been the shift in discussion towards maintenance. Simon Upton, Head of the Environment Directorate at the OECD, stressed the importance of considering maintenance costs of infrastructure into any talk about investment into infrastructure. “For every $1 invested into infrastructure,” said Mr. Upton; “we need an additional $3 to maintain it.” This, in its very essence, is sustainable development; not just the installation of a water pump in a village that will break down and thus be abandoned in a few years, but planning for its preservation over its lifespan. Recognising this need for maintenance will help go a long way to making smarter budgets that include sustainable financing for green growth projects.

The Achilles heel of the green growth strategy remains, however, that behaviour change remains very much absent from the table. The premise of most of the work done by development organisations is providing basic services to those who have little or none. However, once this target is reached, there is no evidence that shows that this new base of consumers will behave responsibly. On the contrary, with less worry about access, it is far more likely – and history has shown this to be true – that wasteful behaviour will increase.

Thus we come to the paradox of sustainable development. Addressing this vital issue is not easy either. Change is hard and changing human behaviour is even harder. For those amongst us who have attempted to be more “green” in their consumption – or just give up a bad habit – we know that it entails sacrifice and denial. And how do we ask those who have never had anything, to deny themselves when finally, they feel they have a right to enjoy life? Yet, without this denial, without thoughtful consumption, sustainability will fail. This is the next subject that must be addressed if green growth is to be the new industrial growth model. To ignore or to exclude it from the discussion spells its doom before its success.

7 thoughts on “Green Growth is Inspiring but Not Watertight

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  2. Wow, I had never really thought about what proportion of infrastructure spending should be reserved for maintenance costs!

    Do any of the reporters know any good online resources for finding out about water stats? Thanks!

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  4. Harriet, not sure whether you will find maintenance cost data here, but this is good water data source http://www.worldwater.org/data.html
    Anyways I would be a bit cautious about aggregated cross border maintenance cost statements as they may differ a lot, however I would argue any appropriate investement plan should consider discount rates based on costs occuring over time, hence I would rather look into the compilation of investment proposals and plans at the individual project appraisal.

  5. Harriet, Tim – thanks so much for your comments!

    Harriet – are you looking for costs on maintenance data specifically? I believe the OECD has very good data on the topic. They’ve just released their latest report on the environmental outlook till 2050 which has a special chapter on water. The link to the entire report is http://www.oecd.org/document/11/0,3746,en_2649_37465_49036555_1_1_1_37465,00.html

    Tim – Agreed. The “one-size-fits-all” methodology is certainly losing its appeal and there is a growing awareness that any development project (and its lifespan) must involve the community where the project is being implemented. Whether this has stretched to the investment proposals, I’m not sure, but I think involving financial institutions in the equation would aid in bringing this aspect to the forefront since they’d have money to lose on a badly managed project. This would certainly address your point about discounted rates and inclusion of depreciation values.

  6. Thanks for your response, I came across another interesting statement in your post “On the contrary, with less worry about access, it is far more likely – and history has shown this to be true – that wasteful behaviour will increase.”. Do you know any illustrative source that would show such effects in the contemporary develoment context?

  7. Thanks for the question, Tim. I will look around and see if I can find anything. In the meantime, I’ll try my best to be the illustrative source!

    The best and most well-known historic example of wasteful consumption increasing with increased access is the Industrial Revolution. The emergence of the factory system not only allowed resources to be consumed at a rapid pace but also boosted consumption, with individuals having more access to more goods and services, and the ability to earn the income to buy them as well. Whether standards of living improved or not is arguable, but there was a transition over the next 30-60 years from thrift and saving for a rainy day to consuming beyond what was is necessary to survive. As savings and investment levels in the economy increased, so did purchasing power, and so did consumption. Goods and services were bought but often unused (I think we can attest to this fact from our everyday lives even). It’s only been in the last few decades that many of the countries that led (and benefited) are talking about consuming responsibly. The success of that, however, is debatable.

    In terms of a more recent example, I can draw from my own personal experiences. In India, when a poverty line household – poverty line being the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life – is added to the electricity grid, rather than consuming only that amount of electricity they need for their daily activities, you often find all the lights, fans and electronic appliances (tv, radio etc) going at full speed even if no one is at home.

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