GLOBAL KNOWLEDGE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE

Green Economy: Roadmaps, Routes and Destinations

4 April 2012

We need green economy roadmaps with 'concrete goals and benchmarks of progress' and we need them fast, according to the zero draft of the outcome document from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.

Between now and 2015 this ambitious plan aims to establish indicators to evaluate implementation, mechanisms for technology transfer, sharing of know-how and capacity building.

Technology and innovation can doubtless help shift the direction of development so that it contributes to sustainable development goals, or keeps the global system within the 'safe operating space' suggested by records from the pre-anthropocene. In this sense, the overall direction of travel is clear. However, the routes available are wide open, and the end destination will be determined not by any blueprint for what a green economy will look like, but by our endless creativity and collective values.

The metaphor of the roadmap can be seen as marking out routes for innovation that see input-output measures of current technologies (such as energy/carbon or resource intensity, pollution reduction or the creation of high quality employment) increasingly improving in their contribution to sustainable development.

But the roads ahead are determined by our current location. Whilst roadmaps drawn up by industrial sectors might act as 20-lane highways down which firms race in competition for market share and technological dominance, there are many other stakeholders and communities who start from very different locations in their search for sustainability.

Researchers from the IDS-coordinated STEPS Centre argue that equal attention must be paid to the multitude of bicycle lanes, bush-paths and mountain trails that draw on the knowledge and creativity held within these groups to collectively carry them in the direction of a more environmentally-sustainable, just and prosperous future.

How can we ensure due attention is paid to these groups and their pathways to sustainability The first step is to recognise that the direction of change – not the kinds of technologies we currently favour – should provide the basis for setting goals. At the international level, therefore, rather than aiming for a specific number of people to be connected to a national electricity grid, or a specific number of square meters of thin film solar PV to be installed, by 2030, we should focus on the provision of energy services, without specifying what technologies are most appropriate in given contexts. Different technological options can be explored through inclusive political processes and market mechanisms or other policy instruments can thereafter be formulated in a way that stimulates continuous innovation and enables human ingenuity to explore new pathways to sustainability.

Planet Under Pressure

The STEPS Centre's session at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference, 'Pathways to sustainability: opening up technological futures in the green economy' explored novel ways of contributing to this governance challenge – through technology assessment, participatory technology development, market mechanisms and social inclusion.

At the same time, there is also a need to recognise the intrinsic ability of some technologies (or socio-technical systems) to work to close down future possible pathways – through economic, political or ecological impacts. Another session – 'Governance of Emerging Technologies in the context of sustainable development' – explored how innovations can be fully and fairly assessed for their safety, ethics, societal or environmental impacts. Emerging technological 'superhighways' have the potential to 'steer' our collective future pathways and deserve more co-ordinated attention from the international community.

Through highlighting directions of travel rather than routes or destinations, roadmaps can serve as useful guides to sustainable development. Conferences such as Planet Under Pressure offer a unique opportunity for the international community to explore diverse pathways towards a greener, fairer economy.

Read more about the STEPS Centre, thier activities at Planet Under Pressure, and how they are engaging with Rio+20.

Adrian Ely is Head of Impact and Engagement at the IDS-coordinated ESRC STEPS Centre.

Photo: Qilai Shen / Panos.