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Spotlight on Environmental Buzzwords: Green Growth

Second installment in our series on environmental buzzwords

"Green growth" (and, to a lesser extent, "sustainable development") is a hot phrase right now. Spearheaded by the Korean government-led Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and a focus of global development efforts by bodies like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank, the term itself is by necessity a little vague. Measurements of environmental health, quality of life, and industrial efficiency have all been cited as potential green-ness metrics.

In general, the term appeals to something many economists take as writ – the idea that economic growth is good and necessary – and suggests that this can be achieved in a sustainable way. This idea was the centerpiece of the 1987 Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, which famously called for "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Advocates of green growth will tell you that it combines the benefits of environmental improvement with economic development, that it is not an either or situation.  There is, however, disagreement on whether green growth is – like economic growth itself – an end-state that we aim for. Or whether it is a process, a way of thinking about things and adapting.

The term "green growth" implies – optimistically – that technological development will allow for more efficient or more creative use of earth's resources. A recent GGGI-sponsored policy paper drove home this point, maintaining that "depletion [of a given resource] is not necessarily in contradiction to sustainable growth."

Without getting into the arguments for and against this viewpoint, it basically flies in the face of the carrying capacity concept. Perpetual economic growth, at least as we understand it now, can't coexist with the idea of hard-and-fast biophysical limits. Ehrlich and Daily (you may remember them from the spotlight on "carbon footprint" – they come up frequently in these sorts of discussions) have consistently called for a "scaling back" of humanity's growth for exactly these reasons.

Inevitably, the discussion often circles back to values. Speaking at Rio + 20 last year, Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, noted: "It’s the responsibility of the rich nations to change the rules of the game to make our lives fuller, richer and more human so that we are not just kids in a candy shop with a fervent desire to consume and consume.”

Next week, we'll be back and look at "Ecosystem Services" – itself an economical way of looking at the environment.