Recipe for a Green Economy


Why aren’t the media talking more about climate change and population growth? asked Nigel Chapman, the Director of the BBC World Service and Trust from 2004 to 2009, speaking at the Green Economy Coalition (GEC) Global meeting in London this week, on how to connect better with audiences about a Green Economy. He quoted a commissioner who had told him: “It’s worthy sounding, it’s bad news and it’s something people can’t do anything about.”

How do you tell a story of transition from the so-called ‘brown economy’ (which uses an economic development model that relies heavily on fossil fuels) to a green economy that inspires others to join in on that transition? What would an advocacy strategy that aims to achieve the Coalition’s goals look like? These were some of the key questions posed over the two day conference.

Chapman said that, thanks to recent cuts to the number of specialised correspondents in the media, we’re “dealing with generalists who can’t deal with the detail” of climate science. As a result, we need to keep messages simple, and we need to offer to cooperate and work together to provide expertise – as was done during the investigations of 11.5 million leaked financial and legal documents, called the Panama Papers, which were covered through joint media productions “unveiled at the same moment with their own angle.”

Unfortunately, non-governmental organisations often work alone, driven by donor demands for independent reporting. Policy and communications people need to work better together as well, said Chapman, but often work separately, in part due to researchers feeling better qualified than their communications colleagues and their reluctance to simplify their messages. Finally, he advised, focus on inequality, equity and justice, rather than climate change, as this was “easier to sell”.

A fairer economy

Many other speakers talked about how the transition to Greener economies shouldn’t just be about moving from the so-called ‘brown economy’. It also had to become a fairer economy, tackling growing inequalities.

Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam GB said that 62 people now own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population, citing statistics from a recent Oxfam report on growing levels of inequality around the world. Were we just covering a brown cake with a thicker layer of green icing, or did we need to change the recipe, she asked?

“It’s not good enough to colour the icing to green”, warned Trebeck, as only a few people are “gobbling up the cake with the green icing”.  There is not enough support for people who rely on the brown economy to find pathways into the green economy, she said, and the poor remain the hardest hit by the effects of climate change. “Elites are racing away with the goodies,” she warned. We need to go after the confluence between power and wealth to address this.

Kate Raworth, who has developed ‘doughnut economics’, a new economic model which puts human wellbeing at is heart by incorporating social boundaries within the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ framework, suggested that the Green Economy Coalition should become the Green and Fair Economy coalition – because, she said, “words matter.”

Anders Wijkman, from the Club of Rome, warned that people saw the green economy as a threat to their livelihoods. He suggested that, unless we made the economy more inclusive with society at its heart, then the high levels of trust necessary to bring about the transition wouldn’t be created.

Different definitions

As with any gathering of different groups, each had their own definition of the green economy and of next steps. What is the difference between the green economy and how is that different from sustainable development? asked a member of the audience, who felt many people were using the terms almost interchangeably. Les Levidow from the Open University asked whether the Green Economy Coalition and its members were aiming to displace the brown economy, or supplement it.

Michael Wilson from Sustainable Prosperity, a Canadian think tank, has been building a new initiative, launched over a year ago, called Smart Prosperity, a Canadian campaign which aims to launch the country as a green economic leader.

Smart Prosperity began with the question: what is the threat of not engaging with the green economy and what are the opportunities? The opportunity, of course, was future jobs in the green tech industry. But, says Wilson, they knew that to see that vision become reality, they needed to create the political constituencies that saw the benefits of a greener economy; and they needed politicians putting the correct policy measures in place to make it happen.

Smart Prosperity has heads of Canadian non-governmental organisations, First Nations leaders and senior CEOs, including Michael Crothers, the President of Shell Canada, included in its ‘leaders’. According to Wilson, The Smart Prosperity campaign decided to engage with the fossil fuel industry while working to reduce society’s footprint as they felt side lining renewables would have put the initiative gaining traction at risk. Shell Canada is well known for being heavily invested in developing tar sands, which aims to increase oil production over the next 20 years.

Other groups within the Coalition would criticise and reject working with Shell at all. This, of course is the difficulty of coalitions – gaining consensus and an overall vision.

“We need to shift people’s consciousness,” said Kumi Naidoo, a human rights campaigner and previously International Executive Director of Greenpeace. He said the key problem was consumerism and affluence. His comments chimed with many people’s comments on the importance of changing mindsets or ideologies. How does the Canadian campaign focussed on prosperity sit with Kumi Naidoo’s suggestion?

Sell the destination, not the journey

Of course, it’s easier to share techniques for telling a story rather than telling a story together. We can all agree on how to bake a cake: it needs heat at the right temperature, and we need to mix up the ingredients. But can we find consensus on the ingredients?

Wilson suggested that they realised early on when they began to build a vision for “smart prosperity,” they had “no image of what the future would look like.” He warned that we have to be “travel agents selling the vision.” Our messages about making the transition to the Green Economy shouldn’t be about the traffic jams on the way to the airport, about the length of your walk from the car park to the terminal, or about the eight-hour long haul flight. No one wants to hear bad news – if travel agents focussed on that, they’d soon be out of business. We should be selling the destination.

Of course, agreeing on the destination, and our vision for what that destination will look like, is far more difficult than identifying all the obstacles to getting there. Perhaps that’s why our green economy stories often focus more on the problems than the vision.

Agreeing on a shared advocacy strategy will be an exciting – but challenging – next step.

Image: Earth Cake by Bart Everson on Flickr (cc by 2.0)