Monday, 22 September 2014

Green transformations need a people-focused politics

As world leaders prepare to come together for the UN climate change summit, talk of ‘transformation’ is on the agenda. The summit comes ahead of next year’s Paris meeting where a new climate change framework is due to be agreed.  2015 is shaping up to be a busy year what with Sustainable Development Goals and the Hyogo disaster risk reduction also on the to-do list.  But will it be a transformation defining-and-catalysing moment, as the hype would suggest?

It depends on what one means by transformation. Accumulating scientific evidence on climate change and other environmental issues certainly suggests that business as usual is not an option. The recently published Global Commission on the Economy and Climate’s report,  argues that economic growth and environmental sustainability can be achieved together, and that transformation can be brought about by technologies in areas like renewable energy, coupled with market incentives to encourage switching from current high-carbon patterns. Centrally, it proposes a high carbon price, and policy commitment nationally and globally to put this in place.

But are technical and market fixes enough and how can we ensure that they are realised? How can we ensure that green economies are also fair economies - that meet the needs, rights and aspirations of all – including people living in poverty and marginalisation?  As colleagues and I at IDS and the STEPS Centre are arguing the required green transformations are also, and fundamentally, political. And they require a politics that extends beyond state action, to encompass bottom-up citizen action and mobilisation and alliance-building.

Citizen-led transformations
Examples of citizen-led transformation are emerging around the world.    They include grassroots innovations, such as the thousands documented by the Honey Bee Network in India, now supported by government through the National Innovation Foundation.

Citizen-led alternative economies and mobilisations around them include low-carbon Transition Towns which began in the UK and have now extended into a worldwide movement. Community practices that create and develop sustainable agricultural and forest management systems are flourishing in many parts of Africa. Civil society groups have also proposed alternative ways of ‘living well’, such as plans for Buen Vivir, now endorsed by government ministries in Ecuador, that combine agro-ecological farming methods with fair, locally-managed systems of food access and control.

Such citizen innovation and mobilisation processes are frequently motivated by a mesh of socio-cultural and livelihood concerns, and understandings of ecology and sustainability – that diverge from the narrow notions of ‘green’ and ‘economic benefit’ encompassed in more technocentric green economy discourses. They tap into people’s lived hopes and fears, in a way that abstract and sometimes alien notions such as ‘carbon’ and ‘the carbon economy’ cannot.

They often emphasise justice as well as greenness - so renewable energy needs to deliver electricity for the poor, not just for growth. Distributional issues are key - green growth for some can too easily mean ‘green grabs’ for others – as examples where forest carbon offset schemes have dispossessed local users from livelihood-vital land and resources have shown.

The politics of alliance-building
It is clear that building dynamic and strong alliances – across community, state and business actors - is critical to achieving green transformations. Through networking, green citizen and community action often moves well beyond the local. Examples like the food sovereignty movement show how initially small community mobilisations in particular places can grow to transnational alliances. In Denmark, both networking and state support were critical in enabling small-scale turbine experimentation in communities to develop into the multi-million dollar wind power industry that we see today.

Citizen movements can play key roles in challenging state-capital elites where they have shown little serious interest in more profound green transformations, and one example is where civil society groups arguing for climate justice have sought alliances with those in the finance industry, given its heightened power to drive decarbonisation.

Research in emerging and rapidly transforming economies such as China and India has demonstrated the importance of alliances forged between individuals and organisations, whose priorities are not always ones of environmental sustainability but who have shared objectives. China is now the world’s number one investor in renewable energy.  This has been driven by priorities around energy security, ambitions to build competitive new sectors and growing public concern about urban pollution.  In India partnerships between business and the state fostered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat increased investment in renewables.  While the key priority was to stimulate economic development, there were also beneficial climate change mitigation outcomes.

We need to identify such alliances, pathways and who stands to gain or lose from them, and this requires a wider-ranging and more inclusive set of political analyses and actions than we are seeing in current debates about climate change and the green economy.

International and local politics and action
While international action on global issues such as climate change has been frustratingly slow, local activity has often been more dynamic. Next week’s meetings thus offer an important window of opportunity: not just to (re) galvanise governments and international agreements, but to connect top down with bottom up, and respect for local rights and perspectives. Whether 2015 is really a defining, transformational moment needs to be judged by this.

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