20 Jun 12 Rio+20 and the green adjustments ahead

Two decades have passed since the first Earth Summit was held at Rio de Janeiro. The Rio+20  Earth Summit will be held this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 conference, to review the progress made in implementing the sustainable development agenda during these years and to frame guidelines for the years ahead. The key themes of the summit are – “building a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty; improve international coordination for sustainable development.”

Whether progress has been made during these twenty years in the intended direction, and the degree of the progress are debatable. But one thing is certain – there is now greater awareness thanks to the continued efforts of government and non-government agencies, environmentalists, think tanks, and dedicated-to-the-cause organizations and individuals. There is awareness that we cannot continue to over-exploit the limited natural resources of our planet. People are aware about the need to conserve for our future generations.

Changing environmental realities have great implications on developed and developing economies alike. It would be interesting to see how developing high-growth economies – like India – are able to balance growth and development with environmental conservation. For example, for India to sustain a 7+% growth for the foreseeable future, the government has envisaged significant investments in infrastructure creation. The 12th plan period (2012-2017) envisages US$1.5 trillion worth of investments into various sub-sectors of infrastructure. While there are land acquisition and project execution challenges coupled with the lack of policy transparency, the biggest challenge for the government would be to channel such large scale capital in a carbon efficient way.

India Infrastructure Report 2010 that focused on infrastructure development in a low carbon economy highlighted the challenges as follows – “The challenges are immense. Technology and finance are central to the interventions that can steer infrastructure towards the low carbon trajectory. Government alone would not be able to provide the necessary finance, and thus considerable private sector investment would be required. An enabling legal, regulatory and institutional framework that facilitates effective innovation, development and deployment is critical. Sector specific needs and problems only add to the complexities.”

Despite the myriad challenges, India – being at the early stages of infrastructure build-up – can adopt a flexible model. And the opportunities to create a low carbon economy are many. India has to take some bold steps and work on developing an enabling framework. In fact, most of the developing nations are similarly placed and can grab the opportunity now, make the green adjustments and ensure growth on a sustainable trajectory.

So what can these developing economies do? Create a conducive environment for the economically poor to rely on lesser carbon intensive means of livelihood. Promote equitable growth with focus on education and healthcare. Incentivise investments in clean energy and create an ecosystem of clean fuel products that affect our daily lives – food and apparels, vehicles, building materials, white goods, etc. Encourage FDI that transfers know-how for green technologies and creates job in clean energy sectors. Reduce fossil fuel subsidy in a phased manner and accept a shorter time frame for implementation. Build a carbon efficient network of public transport to reduce private vehicular traffic. This is the least that the government can do to start with.

I hope the Rio+20 summit does not conclude as another reviewing-the-progress meet with a long list of milestones (development goals) to achieve by the next meet. I hope the governments will show leadership and take action to provide for the ‘Future We Want’.

Ribhu Ranjan Baruah

Ribhu was a project manager at ValueNotes, managing a team that met the research needs of a global investment management firm. He has since moved on to pursue opportunities in impact investing.

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