Rio +20: Not About the Environment, After All…

by | Feb 6, 2012

From the pages of the Guardian

Use Rio+20 to overhaul idea of growth, urges EU climate chief
Connie Hedegaard says GDP model of growth causes overconsumption, drives up commodity prices and ignores the environment

Connie Hedegaard is the European Commissioner for Climate Action. It would be easy to think with such a role, and expressing such sentiments that she was something of a lefty, but she in fact belongs to the Danish Conservative Peoples Party.

The Graun continues:

The world must use a landmark environmental summit this year to change forever the current damaging model of economic growth, Europe’s climate chief has warned, or face future crises as severe as the one currently enveloping the eurozone.

Overconsumption of critical resources, and the rising prices of key commodities such as food, energy and natural materials as a result, risk derailing the world economy – but these problems will not be tackled unless today’s economic models are overhauled, according to Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for climate action. That is because judging economic growth purely on the basis of production and consumption, as happens now, encourages rampant overconsumption and fails to value the natural environment.

Fiona Harvey — who wrote the article — has little in the way of a faculty of reflection. I’ve met her, and she’s nothing if not zealous. This article is an argument for the complete change to the global economy, on the say so of some figures who are even more self-regarding than the author. Fine, Fiona, Connie (and Joseph Stiglitz gets a mention too), you want to change the world and save the planet. These are noble aims. But the idea that it should be changed at conferences in Rio, rather than by the actual inhabitants of the planet is surely a problem. Why doesn’t Harvey write instead ‘big-headed climate twonk wants to change the world through an entirely undemocratic institution’? Environmentalists, although bang on about ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’ are the first to put aside such concepts when, as ends, threaten to deprive them of means.

Shock, horror, slightly thick Guardian eco-hack doesn’t think idea through. We’re talking about Hedegaard here… The journalism is merely disappointing, the politics is disgusting. Says Hedegaard:

“The 21st century must have a more intelligent growth model, or else it’s really difficult to see how we feed 7 billion people now and 9 billion people [by 2050],” she said. “Resources were cheap before, but it seems we are in for a period where resources become more and more expensive. Oil is coming up in price, so many other commodities are coming up in price. Food prices are rising. We need to deal with this.”

The Commissioner’s solutions are, of course, ways of producing energy that are more than twice as expensive as the resources they are intended to replace. But resources could be cheap once again, were commissioners to argue for R&D in sectors that could produce energy for less, in increasing abundance: new nuclear techniques, for instance, or new ways of exploiting gas, oil, and coal. The more expedient story for undemocratic and unaccountable commissioners, however, is that ‘stuff is running out’. It’s not.

“This is an opportunity to rethink [how we measure growth],” Hedegaard told the Guardian. “The knowledge is out there, the analysis has been done. We can take this decision in Rio.”

Current models of growth prize only consumption and production, rating countries’ performance according to their GDP.

However, there is a growing belief among some economists that this long-standing model has outlived its usefulness, and provides no protection for the natural world. The Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz has been one of the leading voices calling for a change, and world leaders including David Cameron, the UK prime minister, have heeded the call, promising moves towards a broader definition of economic value.

“This has a lot of relevance to the euro crisis,” said Hedegaard. “We’re trying to make it clear that the climate change crisis is an economic crisis, a social and a job crisis – it should be seen as a whole. If we do not tackle these, we will be in crisis mode for many, many years.”

This is what Rio is really about. Politicians have given up on the idea of growth. I haven’t. You probably haven’t. But politicians, left and right alike, have. They don’t know how to deliver it, though they certainly still know how to keep it amongst their own. Growth, in the West, is in reality, off the agenda. And once there is a political consensus that this is the case, and that the job of politics is not about economics, but to save the world and make people happy (apart from money), you don’t need to ask the public for a mandate. You just need to have huge meetings every N years, to make real the sense that the world is about to end and that Something Must Be Done, and that therefore whatever happens in the political sphere is legitimate. The mandate comes from above — supranational, planet-saving political institutions — not from below, us. The rest is sheer Disney – a product of cold, faux sentimentality delivered by people only too happy to tread on your face. “We care“, they want to tell you.

Hedegaard reveals the truth. It was supposed to be about saving the planet, protecting the environment. But it soon turned out that it was much more about changing the human world, and of legitimising political institutions that struggle to identify their purpose. Things are running out, she claims, yet all indications are that there are more fossil fuels at our disposal than ever before. Where prices have risen, it is because of political uncertainties, created as often as not by politicians like Hedegaard, creating scarcity where there might easily be abundance. Sanctions, wars, environmental regulation: these are the things that have pushed up energy prices, not its depletion.


  1. Black Briton

    The good news is; these policies of changing the world economy are so far reaching the don’t have a chance of succeeding.

    But I guess the bad news is; if they do succeed you might as well burn your pension documents (or any other form of investment) for warmth this winter.

  2. Alex Cull

    On June 18th this year, we have the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, attended by a group of people including the leaders and finance ministers from the G20 countries, who will gather to decide on some sort of a plan for the global economy. This ends on June 19th.

    The very next day, on June 20th, we have the Rio +20 summit, attended by a group of people including (as far as I know) no leaders or finance ministers from the G20 countries, who will also gather to decide on some sort of a roadmap for the global economy.

    Two summits, both in Latin America, both in the same week, both with an agenda to determine the fate of the world economy, and attended, seemingly, by two completely different sets of people.

    Is there anyone else who finds this arrangement just a little bizarre?


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