This June 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will convene in Rio de Janeiro on the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, which was also held in Rio. (The conference is more commonly known as Rio+20.) UNCSD is the most recent expression of UN environmental “summitry,”1 a series of diplomatic megaconferences that have marked the evolution of modern international environmental law and policy. Precedents include the Hague Peace Conference on Nature Conservation, which gathered 58 nations and was convened at the initiative of President Roosevelt in 1909, and the 1949 UN Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources.1

Since then, the UN General Assembly has periodically convened similar conferences, and these have included representatives from all nations comprising the international community. The summits have taken an all-encompassing view of “global” environment issues—that is, environmental issues that are transboundary, affect global commons, or otherwise represent a shared concern for humankind. Unlike the issue-specific international treaty-based regimes that address individual environmental threats, UN environmental summits focus broadly on the role of international cooperation and international law in addressing continuing and emerging global environmental challenges.

These summits have gradually but exponentially opened up intergovernmental negotiations to a variety of other international stakeholders, notably NGOs and the private sector, but also national actors such as parliamentarians, judges, and local authorities. Earlier summits prompted new international environmental treaties—for example, the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which was followed by the adoption of the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Earth Summit, which led to the adoption of the three so-called Rio Conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.

More recently, with the 2012 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, these gatherings have become opportunities to collectively keep tabs on how well internationally agreed upon political commitments and legally binding obligations have been followed. Attention has therefore shifted from filling an international regulatory gap to addressing possible implementation gaps: in other words, instead of defining programmatic frameworks for international environmental decision making, efforts are now channeled into consolidating the results of earlier negotiations.1 Like Johannesburg, Rio+20 will focus on such implementation issues, with the ambition to “secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges.”2

UN environmental summits have also offered the international community the opportunity to develop an evolving conceptual basis upon which to build and give impetus to international environmental cooperation at all levels. The Stockholm Declaration agreed upon at the 1972 summit provided basic principles for responding to unprecedented global environmental challenges.3 The Rio Declaration adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit offered an additional set of principles, with a view to balancing the global approach to environmental protection with economic and social development needs. Many therefore see the Rio Declaration as intergovernmental endorsement of sustainable development.

The Rio Declaration also includes other principles that have shaped and continue to shape international environmental law, such as the principle of public participation in environmental decision making—which aims to ensure equity between governments and their communities—and the idea of common but differentiated responsibility, aimed at ensuring equity between governments, particularly those of developed and developing countries.4 The Summit in Johannesburg also adopted a Political Declaration,5 which, among other things, included poverty eradication and health as important aspects of global environmental cooperation, thereby strengthening the social pillar of sustainable development (the other pillars being environmental and economic). Following this collective conceptual exercise, one of the themes of the fast-approaching Rio+20 summit is the “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.”2


UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata
Two women prepare posters and signs to be used in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Promises and Risks of the Green Economy

The “green economy” encapsulates the idea of resource-efficient and low-carbon economic development that protects and enhances the natural resource base and promotes sustainable consumption and production patterns.6 It promises to put environmental protection center stage, turning it into an engine that could propel the international community out of the current financial, food, and climate crises.

The green economy thus has the potential to overhaul the “environmental integration” approach, whereby environmental concerns are merely “taken into account” among (but not necessarily preferred to) short-term economic and social priorities. The idea of environmental integration was part of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, which called for an integrated approach to development planning so as to ensure that development is “compatible” with the need to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of the population.

The Rio Declaration cemented this concept, stating that environmental protection should constitute an “integral part” of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it. The Johannesburg Declaration pointed to a collective responsibility to ensure that environmental protection is seen as an “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillar” of sustainable development, together with economic and social development.

Going a step further, the green economy seeks to highlight that the most promising path, not only for effective international cooperation, but also for business development and job creation at national and local levels, is to systematically seize the new investment and cost-effective opportunities that arise from innovative environmental management approaches. This is expected to leave significant flexibility to decision makers, who have a choice of policy instruments: regulatory, economic, and fiscal measures; investment in green infrastructure; financial incentives; subsidy reform; sustainable public procurement; information disclosure; and voluntary partnerships.6

Nonetheless, the green economy concept has opened a Pandora’s box of anxieties, particularly among developing countries. Many fear that it would replace the concept of sustainable development, which includes due consideration for the reduction of poverty and social exclusion, with a profit-driven and technology-obsessed vision of environmental management.6 Furthermore, there is concern that the green economy would create new trade barriers, impose new conditionalities on aid and finance, exacerbate developing countries’ technological dependence on developed countries, or restrict the policy space for countries to pursue their own paths to sustainable development. In addition, developing countries stress that they would need the support of the international community to undertake the structural adjustments needed to take the green economy path.6

Ecosystem Services, Human Rights–Based Approaches, and Corporate Accountability

While the negotiations preceding Rio+20 have already highlighted concerns of equity and fairness among states in the context of the green economy, little has been said about how the green economy might affect equitable relations between governments and their communities. It remains to be seen whether the green economy concept, in focusing on business opportunities and cost-effectiveness in environmental protection, will adequately consider human well-being7 and community livelihoods.

To that end, the concept of ecosystem services could be useful: it highlights the connection between environmental protection, human well-being, and poverty eradication, as well as the need to carry out an economic valuation of ecosystems and their protection (or the costs of lack of protection). The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment8,9 was the first global study that catalyzed consensus on the term “ecosystem services” as meaning the benefits people obtain from ecosystems, such as food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, diseases, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.


UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (right) with Nelson Mandela at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.

This understanding has been more recently complemented by global economic valuation studies showing why prosperity depends on maintaining the flow of benefits from ecosystems and why successful environmental protection needs to be grounded in sound economics, including explicit recognition, efficient allocation, and fair distribution of the costs and benefits of conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.10 The so-called Stern Review on the economics of climate change11 is a prominent example of this mode of thinking. It argues that introducing a price for greenhouse gas emissions is one of the most effective ways to mitigate climate change. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study,12 supported by the UN Environment Programme, makes a similar case. It argues that economic valuation is an indispensable means for mainstreaming biodiversity in decision making across different policy areas and instruments, as well as for a combined approach to climate change mitigation and prevention of biodiversity loss.

The concept of ecosystem services is also linked to the ecosystem approach—the integrated, iterative, adaptive, and precautionary13 approach to environmental management that is based on broad stakeholder engagement and consideration of the impacts of environmental degradation and management options on the most vulnerable sectors of society.14,15 Emerging from this approach are the sharing of benefits arising from conservation and sustainable use of biological resources and from access to genetic resources. According to this benefit-sharing approach, governments are expected to involve local and indigenous communities in decision making and good-faith negotiations. Governments are also expected to reward communities for sharing their traditional knowledge in planning and environmental management or to compensate them for the negative impacts of conservation or sustainable management activities on their natural resources or cultural practices.

Governments are therefore expected to provide communities with a direct stake in protecting the environment, a legal market with moderate prices for sustainable natural resource use, and an economic or other incentive to prevent degradation. Significantly, benefits can be monetary and nonmonetary; in many instances, communities may be more interested in the latter, particularly where the benefits involve legal recognition of traditional rights to certain resources or protection of customary sustainable-use practices.16 Benefits may also include the provision of guidance (such as training or capacity building) to improve the environmental sustainability of community practices and the proactive identification of opportunities for better/alternative livelihoods in these endeavors, with a view to facilitating understanding of, and compliance with, the law. Benefits may also include opportunities for local and indigenous communities to participate in private investments. Indeed, international guidance on benefit sharing has been drafted and applied directly to the private sector.17

In conclusion, the green economy can either place environmental protection within an economic development-dominated framework or place development within an ecosystem-based framework. According to the latter model, the state (and the private sector, in the absence of or in addition to relevant state action) is expected to adopt a bottom-up approach to building a true partnership with communities for the conservation and sustainable use of the environment by proactively providing a combination of economic and noneconomic benefits. A well-rounded notion of the green economy could incorporate that perspective, thereby promoting not only high-tech and high-profit environmental management solutions but also proper valuation and rewards for indigenous and local environmental stewardship. Such an inclusive approach could also allow Rio+20 to contribute to a human rights–based approach to environmental protection and corporate accountability—two themes that have proven elusive in the history of UN environmental summits so far.18-22


The author is grateful to Charlotte Salpin of the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea for her useful comments on a draft of this article.


Elisa Morgera

Elisa Morgera specializes in international, European, and comparative environmental law, focusing on biodiversity, international environmental governance, corporate environmental accountability, and the...

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