The U.N. climate change conference (COP21), which ended recently in Paris, was billed as potentially the last chance to obtain a major global treaty on climate change, and as an event that could help set the direction the world’s major economies will take over the coming decades.
At the heart of negotiations among developing nations was the concept of the “green economy.” It’s an idea that was introduced almost 30 years ago but only recently became a keystone in the climate change debate. Resource economist Anil Markandya is the father of this idea, and in the run-up to COP21, Pro Journo spoke with him.
In 1989, Markandya, as co-author, published “Blueprint for a Green Economy,” which would become his most important book. It was one of the first attempts to guide policymakers and academics in establishing tools for assessing the environment in economic terms and to include its value in economic decision-making.
Even 30 years ago, the green economy concept seemed to encapsulate most of the key principles and practices needed to make the world’s economy sustainable. But as the debates at the COP21 conference demonstrated, there is still no agreement or substantial political commitment on how to make the transition to a green economy and what role it would play in the battle against climate change.
Originally, Markandya defined the concept as an economy “where the environment has its proper place.” Because his book was published right after the Brundtland Commission, which defined global sustainable development, his green economy was quickly placed alongside the increasingly popular idea of sustainability. Since then, many similar concepts have appeared, such as green growth, low-carbon economy and bio-economy, to name a few.
“People like to think about new words,” Markandya said when I met him. At 69, the Nobel Peace Prize winner rises at 7 a.m. He works until evening, with quick breaks for breakfast and lunch.
“Basically, there is the same idea of bringing together the environment and the economy, and the society. And that all these important concepts are taking into account in the process of making decisions about our lives, our consumption, our production and the way we organize our activities,” he said.
Markandya said all those ideas are varying names for essentially the same thing. But despite this glut of terms, it was the green economy that was chosen as the economic base for sustainable development at the United Nations’ Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in 2012, and it remains a core concept for those combating climate change.
Though successful now, it took many years for Markandya to bring his idea to life. His own rise has largely followed that of the concept he created. Things were very different back in the 1960s when he started his research career in Britain, where he arrived after fleeing Pakistan with his family and a stint in Uganda. At the time, the U.K. was suffering from an economic slowdown—the emphasis was on living standards and much less about their impact on the environment. In the environmental economics field, there were few experts and little interest.
Like many others, Markandya studied economics as well as econometrics, which was popular at that time, but he felt he would contribute less in these fields than he would in environmental economics. So he persuaded his supervisor at the London School of Economics to accept an unusual topic where, among other things, he tried to put values on things that did not have a value before, like air and noise pollution. This was the beginning of his mission to achieve a global commitment to the incorporation of social and environmental targets into classical short-term economic thinking.
Eighteen years later, in 2007, Markandya shared the Nobel Peace Prize as a lead author of the Fourth Assessment Report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In it, he examined various scenarios and trends on how the world would develop, depending on different CO2 emissions levels. It was a recognition of Markandya’s contribution to environmental policy, but also an illustration of how his own interests in the green economy had persistently moved toward climate change. He now runs a climate change research center at the invitation of the Basque government in Spain (it was named Best Climate Change Think Tank in Europe in 2012 by the International Center for Climate Governance).
While the United Nations Environment Programme defines a green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, as well as significantly reduced environmental risks and damage, over time different countries have shaped their own conceptions of the idea differently. For example, Sergey Bobylev, a Russian expert in the green economy, says that for his country the most critical issues are natural resource depletion and energy intensity reduction, while most other developed countries are focused on building low-carbon economies.
But increasingly, climate change has become the central preoccupation of green economics, just as it has for Markandya. Climate change is now the main topic on the green economy agenda among developed countries, according to Bobylev.
Although many developed and developing countries are open to his ideas, Markandya acknowledges that they still face considerable resistance elsewhere, particularly in the U.S. The United States is the “society which is probably the most difficult to convince on sustainability issues,” he said.
At COP21 in Paris, Markandya was to present a paper on how water can be used more efficiently in the future, in light of climate change. He also planned to continue his discussions with governments to reduce CO2 emissions by 2030. If the U.S. and China make a commitment at the conference to reduce their emissions, he said, it will be a huge impetus for development of low-carbon economies.
He said a cultural change is needed among people so they recognize that it is possible to have both good living standards and a cleaner environment.
“But more than anything else, we now need a big political commitment,” he said.