Unpacking multiple “shades of green” to make hope possible

People's Climate March NYC 2014

Sandra Pointel, Associate Tutor, SPRU

This year will see the culmination of two major global agreements for climate change and development. From 30 November to 11 December, worldwide negotiators will gather in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to hammer out a deal that will define post-Kyoto commitments for the next 15 years.

The climate negotiations will follow earlier decisions for the adoption of new Sustainable Development Goals to replace the 2000 Millennium Development Goals with broader objectives applicable to all countries.

Beyond the closed doors of the negotiating table, COP21, as its predecessors, is likely to attract diverse civil society actors seeking to influence the process and put pressure for a strong climate change deal.

As a preamble, the global People’s Climate March last September, which received the back-up of more than 1500 organisations and gathered an estimated 311,000 participants in New York City alone, has already been described as the largest climate change march in history.

On the surface, there are signs for optimism compared to the aftermath of the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen where high expectations for an ambitious agenda were shattered by the lack of strong commitments towards a post-Kyoto agreement.

This time, both China and the US, respectively current, and, historical, highest greenhouse gases (GHG) emitters, have expressed willingness to strike a deal. Furthermore, diverse new political groups  have emerged beyond the Annex I/non- Annex I divide that long characterised the UNFCCC negotiating process and several developing countries have adopted some form of climate change policies.

While all these are encouraging, it is yet unclear whether they will be enough to secure a strong agreement, given the current inertia and resistance to change from powerful actors. But it is crucial to “make hope possible rather than despair convincing,” as Andrew Simms, chief analyst on the environment at Global Witness, told the audience at the launch of the STEPS Centre’s book on The Politics of Green Transformations earlier this year, reviving a quote from British critic Raymond Williams.

Despite numerous high-level meetings, debates and associated civil society mobilisations since at least the 1992 UN Rio Conference on Environment and Development, power and politics have often been the elephant in the room in sustainability debates. And it is exactly that gap that The Politics of Green Transformations, edited by Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach and Peter Newell, aims to fill.

So far discussions on green transformations have remained largely focused on technology fixes, prices and, to some extent, governance, but there is no core space for issues dealing with power and politics, explained Peter Newell, who chaired the book launch at the London-based National Liberal Club (NLC). By contrast, the book places politics centre-stage, raising crucial questions such as “who sets the terms of the transformation, what is to be transformed, who is doing the transforming and who benefits and looses”.

The launch location provided an interesting platform for a book seeking to emphasise multiple perspectives on green transformations and calling for broader decision-making processes beyond the managerial and technocratic control of a selected few. Strategically located near Whitehall, the NLC created in 1882 aimed to provide, in the word of his initiator Arthur John Williams, a “home for democracy void of the class distinction associated with the [UK] Devonshire and Reform Clubs”. As the book emphasises, “various shades of green” exist and politics are often about reconciling tensions between these different versions of sustainability with vital links to social justice.

The NLC was also the first major London ‘gentlemen’s’ club to admit women as full members in 1976. And, as Marc Hudson pointed out in a blogpost, genders were equally represented on the book launch’s panel. But beyond, compliance with quotas, it is the diversity of perspectives on which actors to focus on and what issues to tackle, that made the event particularly interesting, providing a snapshot into why politics matter in green transformations.

At the launch two economists, Mariana Mazzucato of SPRU and Camilla Toulmin of IIED, highlighted very different political dimensions of sustainability debates both in terms of geographic setting and players involved.

Mazzucato particularly emphasised the key role of the “entrepreneurial state” in shaping policy and directing investments and the need to focus on the real economy at a time when “the energy and pharmaceutical sectors are as sick as the banks”.

Toulmin, on the other hand, pointed out to voluntary initiatives from middle and low-income countries, the crucial role of grassroots organisations in influencing debates, potentials for off-grid renewable energy to address energy access issues, as well as the importance to reframe the green economy as sustainable development and to go beyond sole considerations of carbon reductions to include other sustainability issues around water, land, forests and biodiversity.

This necessity to embrace diverse perspectives on what and who matters to shift the agenda towards new directions is particularly prominent in The Politics of Green Transformations. Moving beyond highly polarised debates on economic growth versus sustainability, environment versus development or economists versus anthropologists, it places centre-stage the contested nature of green-transformations, as “pathways interconnect and compete”, preferring an emphasis on trade-offs over sole considerations of win-win solutions in a world where many powerful actors have to loose out from green transformations.

The attention to pluralistic views and the strong focus on politics and power because of their important influence on “how pathways are shaped, which pathways win out and why, and who benefits from them,” is particularly reminiscent to previous thinking developed in the 2010 book Dynamic Sustainabilities. However, The Politics of Green Transformations distinguishes itself from its predecessor by the diversity of conceptual frameworks put forward and different political dimensions contributors focus on in the book’s chapters.

Nevertheless, several key principles unify contributors. First of all, “a common normative view…[based on] a concern both for environment, and for people’s inclusion and well-being”. While “green” figures in the title to reflect the unprecedented nature challenges of large-scale transformation associated with environmental changes, it does not exclude other dimensions of sustainability, emphasising the need for specific and contextualised attention to social and environmental justice.

Furthermore, the use of “transformations” over transitions”, prominent in both academic and policy circles is no coincidence. While talks of transformation may be back in vogue after historian Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book on “The Great Transformation”, the deliberate use of the term also reflects the authors’ quest to address deeper questions of social justice and potential need for radical structural change.

Williams’ full quote is actually “to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. While some of the book contributors may happily recognise themselves in this statement, others might object such association, given the large variations of not only shades but also colours among radicals. But providing alternatives to mainstream policy analysis and neo-classical economics orthodoxies, still dominant despite the scope and scale of the global financial crisis, does provide some hopeful avenues in the face of inertia and apparently intractable issues around development and environment. More, it offers a range of academic perspectives on visions that “another world is possible” long advocated by social movements around the globe.

While the “Road to Paris” (and to the SDGs) continue to gather momentum, much works remain to be done in reconciling long-lasting tensions between climate change and development and mobilising diverse international, national and local actors.

Whether the road from New York to Paris leads to a transformation and diverse voices get heard partially depends on the ability of various actors to move beyond their own agenda to secure a strong climate deal. This requires not only civil society organisations but also countries to overcome potential fragmentations and work towards broader coalitions.

The European Union, for example, could forge partnerships with Least Developed Countries and Latin American states to avoid a weak outcome, book launch panelist Michael Jacobs explained. “This year, above all, there is a need to mobilise pressure on different activities and shift investments and there is little time to do this,” he added. “We need coalitions to push for a stronger deal. If not there is a risk for countries to settle for the lowest denominator agreement.”

Photo of the People’s Climate March, New York City 2014 by South Bend Voice, Flickr CC

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