Ulrich Brand: Green Economy

Brand_Ulrich - HokkaidoWheatField by mss_A14_6259

Structural Limits to a Green Economy


Ulrich Brand

The concept of Green Economy – like “sustainable development” in Rio 1992 – seems to have the potential to become the new leading strategy. Looking back, it is clear that the concept of sustainable development was a political strategy of global resource management and ecological modernisation and, at least at the beginning, an attempt to reconcile environmental problems with those of development. And it was, right after 1989, part of certain optimism that global problems could now be solved cooperatively. However, sustainable development strategies have failed because there have not been enough relevant economic force(s) to really push this strategy. The “brown economy” remained dominant. Despite all particular successes, the worldwide use of resources, ecosystems, and sinks has dramatically increased within the last 20 years.

In contrast to the concept and strategy of sustainable development in the 1990s, now it seems that a Green Economy is attractive for relevant socio-economic actors. Technologies to develop renewable sources of energy or electronic engines for cars are available and microelectronics play a much more important role today than 20 years ago. And there is another dynamics, i.e. the current crisis, the major cause of which is an enormous amount of over-accumulated capital that seeks new investment opportunities. Financial capital has discovered agriculture, soil, infrastructure, and environmental protection as a new field of investment, creating opportunities for a few and threatening the living conditions of many; particularly in the Global South.

The orientation at the strategy towards a Green Economy seems to promise an attractive orientation out of the deep functioning and legitimation crisis of neoliberalism that became manifest in 2008 and, in particular, hit vulnerable countries and social groups.

It is not possible to give a precise definition of the green economy. The United Nations themselves state in the first preparatory document for the Rio+20 conference: “The green economy approach seeks, in principle, to unite under a single banner the entire suite of economic policies and modes of economic analyses of relevance to sustainable development.

In practice, this covers a rather broad range of literature and analysis, often with somewhat different starting points” (UN Secretary-General in 2010). Green economy is, like sustainable development, rather an oxymoron which intends to bundle different, partly contradictory interests and strategies and gives them certain legitimacy and coherence.

In recent years, several studies were published that suggest that the economic and ecological crisis can be overcome through fostering a green economy. UNEP started in 2009 with its Green Economy Initiative. The EU Commission (2010) attempted to develop a plan for sustainable growth: the promotion of a resource-light, ecological, and competitive economy. In a recent communication from September 2011, the EU Commission considered it necessary to fundamentally transform the European economy within the time span of one generation. Reducing resource use and increasing resource efficiency are seen as key mechanisms for coping with environmental problems and resource shortages and at the same time strengthening European competitiveness.

Was this not the wording 20 years ago when the term sustainable development was first promoted? At this time the explicit focus was not so much on economic growth but rather, since the publishing of the Brundtland Report, on the widely held assumption that economic growth is the basis for sustainable development.

Today, strategy papers of important institutions can be read in a sense that they offer the world an option in the midst of an economic crisis: green growth and green economy.

The problem diagnoses of the green economy contributions are quite similar: The dominant economic development becomes problematic given the forecasted growth of the world population to nine or even eleven billion people by 2050, the impossibility of the “business as usual” scenario, and the globalization of resource intensive Western production and consumption patterns. The well known neoclassical argument that prices for products do not reflect the “true” environmental costs is often used. At the same time, the necessity of (not too strict) political regulations is acknowledged.

The goals and strategies are common: a low-carbon economy and resource efficiency, green investments, technological innovation (e.g. the OECD aims at “eco-innovation”) and more recycling, green jobs, well-being, poverty eradication, and social inclusion. Special emphasis is given to an adequate political framework.

As far as I see it, all the studies and strategy papers consider economic growth as desirable and necessary. However, what is usually described is the potential of a green economy, and the obstacles and opposing interests are hardly dealt with. There is a belief, akin to the beginning of the sustainable development discourse 20 years ago, that comprehensive win-win situations should be promoted. And there is a firm trust that existing political and economic institutions and elites are able and willing to guide this process.

Against this background, the current debate about a green economy can be seen as the attempt to re-formulate sustainability in a new historical situation. In the following I would like to highlight some structural elements which need to be considered seriously – and which need to be changed if the necessary socio-ecological transformation is to be taken seriously. The assumption of the following argument is certain and empirically evident scepticism that the stated aims of a green economy cannot be realized. This has to do with existing – and even slightly changed – political institutions like national states oriented mainly towards global competitiveness and geopolitical interests as well as powerful international institutions promoting free trade, with economic institutions like the capitalist market and profit driven development of technologies, with dominant societal orientations like growth at any cost and the increasing exploitation of nature, and with power relations under the dominance of elites which aim to maintain their status.

Two important parallels exist between the debate at the beginning of the 1990s and today. One important global development was overlooked at the beginning of the 1990s: the growing role of military conflict in the world that, at least in part, is driven by resource competition. Only 16 months before Rio, the second gulf war took place, but this was not at all an issue in Rio. The militarization of world politics has deepened since then. Another aspect that was downplayed around 1992 was the intensification of liberal globalisation with an enormous increase in the use of resources and the introduction of sinks. The Uruguay Round of the GATT agreements headed towards the consolidation of liberal globalization (and the foundation of the WTO in 1995) – but those developments were also not included in the Rio deliberations. Today, problems of liberal globalization are considered but it remains an open question whether the related economic and political forces can be weakened.

However, as it was already said, we face a new historical situation which reflects structural constraints to the ambitious proposals of a green economy.

First, with the emergence of countries like China, India, and Brazil as strong and self-conscious economies, we observe in fact new geopolitical rivalries for scarce resources. The Chinese government, for example, prohibited the export of certain rare minerals last year in order to use them for production processes in China. The European Commission refers explicitly to growing resource competition, too. I do not see this as a driver for different society-nature relations facing the problems of environmental degradation despite the fact that geopolitical rivalry might lead in some cases to technological innovation.

Second, the proposals to promote a green economy demand strong regulatory frameworks. This is an important precondition of an alternative path. However, it needs to be seen that the existing regulatory frameworks mainly promote unsustainable production and consumption practices. Economic and political strategies focus on the cheap and stable availability of resources. In the case of a conflict, the ministry of environment usually loses against the ministry of finance or the economy where unsustainable economic interests are represented. The same is the case at the international level: Financial and economic policies are usually more powerful than those of sustainability. Up to now, the plea for an adequate regulatory framework seems a bit voluntarist and blind against dominant power relations. Moreover, in the actual crisis, regulatory frameworks tend to develop in an authoritarian direction to secure access to resources for particular countries or regions.

Third, in most analyses and strategy papers the notion of a green economy also means “green” growth. Especially since 2008 we can observe that public policies are heavily concerned with the maintenance of economic growth and employment. Economic and mainly unsustainable growth in capitalist societies secures not only profits for the owners of assets and jobs for wage-earners but it also constitutes the tax basis of the state. We saw in 2008/2009 that crisis strategies did not go hand in hand with the profound re-orientation of production and consumption patterns. However, a severe conflict exists due to the fact that business as usual does not function and that the crisis of crisis management becomes increasingly obvious.

Fourth, liberal politics of open markets and fierce competition have led to de-industrialisation in many countries of the Global South. What is reasonable from a neoclassical perspective – production that takes place where it is most efficient – has pushed many countries into the new-old strategy of resource extractivism. In most countries in Latin America, this seems to be the only viable development strategy to alleviate poverty. This is the case even in Brazil and in Mexico. For example, the US dependent maquiladora industry of Mexico lost its competitive advantage with the accession of China to the WTO in 2000. Today, most economic dynamics in Mexico take place in the mining sector. Resource extractivism is the other side of the coin for a resource intense economy in industrialised and industrialising countries – and it is the other side of the green economy since precious metals for high tech products also come from countries of the Global South.

Finally, globalisation means of what can be called an “imperial mode of living”. Globalised liberal markets are inscribed in everyday practices in the sense that the access to cheap and often unsustainably produced products and labour are normalised. This is not particularly disputed in the crisis and is actually universalising among the global upper and middle classes.

Some observers argue that strategies of a green economy are going to meet the same fate than sustainable development, i.e. to remain something for policy talks and not to gain momentum. I am not so sure. A selective greening of the economy is already taking place. However, given the outlined constraints, it is probable that a green economy will be realised in a highly selective manner in some branches and some regions and that it will not deal with problems of environmental degradation and poverty, with the necessity to develop new understandings and forms of wealth effectively. The danger is then that this occurs at the expense of other regions, e.g. the increase of renewable energies at the cost of destructive palm oil production in Indonesia or agrofuels in Brazil.

Therefore, we should not downplay a specific function of the concept of a green economy: Given its broad meaning, it might orient manifold and specific strategies.

If my arguments about structural constraints are taken seriously and if my normative position is acknowledged – the necessity of an effective dealing with questions of wealth and social justice, environmental degradation and poverty -, it is not enough to create adequate governance mechanisms to avoid resource conflicts, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or to stop the erosion of biodiversity. The underlying drivers of unsustainable production and consumption patterns as well as related politics need to be reshaped.


Related Works:

Brand, Ulrich (2015): Brave Green World: The Green Economy Myths. Luxemburg Argumente, no. 3. https://www.rosalux.de/publication/38457/beautiful-green-world.html

Brand, Ulrich/Lang, Miriam (2015): Entry “Green Economy”. In: Pattberg, Philipp/Zelli, Fariborz (eds.): Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Politics and Governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.


Brand_Ulrich - portraitUlrich Brand works as Professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna. His research and teaching focuses on international environmental and resource politics, social-ecological transformation, and Latin America. His theoretical works engage the fields of critical state and governance studies, regulation theory, and political ecology. During six years as post-doc at the University of Kassel he wrote his habilitation on the “internationalisation of the state“. He was a member of the German Bundestag’s Enquete Commission on “Growth, Well-Being and Quality of Life“ (2011-2013), and he is since 2012 a member of the Transdisciplinary Advisory Board of the European Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) Climate.

Banner Image: Green Wheat Field in Hokkaido, Northern Japan (2014).


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