OECD Forum 2011. New sources of growth: green your life

Two panels in this session, on “Lessons from successful green growth reform” and “Stimulating change in business practice and consumer behaviour”. The amphitheatre is lit like a 1970s ballroom – dim blues and reds, perfect cover for cowardly hecklers.

In fact, the trouble comes from the podium, where Chandran Nair, who intervened briefly this morning, shatters the consensus. I had expected WWF’s Jim Leape to lead the charge against big business, but the panda kept its claws sheathed.

Leape praised the various companies the WWF works with. These include cement makers Lafarge (responsible for 1% of global CO2 emissions by itself at one time according to the WWF director), and a number of big companies like Coca Cola who’ve pledged to help put an end to deforestation by 2020. Other business initiatives include Unilever’s decision to do away with the quarterly report and the short-termism it engenders. Conclusion: business can lead and government can back them up.

For Nair, all the talk of “green” this and that trivialises the whole debate. If we don’t recognise that we’re faced with massive constraints, we’re victims of the corporate fairy tales firms like to peddle to improve their image. It’s simply not possible for billions of Asians to live and consume like Americans. In fact, he argues, restricting consumption is not a bad thing, except for business. So, governments’ role is not to follow, but to lead – by imposing rules on car ownership for instance.

Thomas Koenen, speaking for German industry, is a surprise ally on some points at least. He doesn’t find classifications like “green” sectors all that useful either. Offshore windfarms for example all need steel for their construction.

The first panel ends with no consensus. Then they inflict Björk on us again until moderator Simon Upton asks somebody to put her out of her misery (and turn up the lights so he can see who wants to intervene).

Jeremy Rifkin kicks off, practicing what he preaches by recycling his talk from this morning. Marie-Louise Knuppert of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions reminds us why so many businesses have “suggestion boxes”: workers don’t leave their brains at the door when they arrive for a shift. They know the products and processes of any business as well as anyone and should be involved in changing not only what firms do, but how they do it.

Bjorn Stigson of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development still hasn’t forgiven Nair for his earlier comments and insists that business is well aware of the constraints. In fact, competition  for access to resources is being transformed into a “green race” to dominate the world economy, with China well-positioned coming out the starting blocks.

One of the most interesting exchanges is between a business consultant from Africa and Stigson. The consultant said that Africa was being neglected in this dialogue. Stigson replied that they’d tried to engage African business leaders but without success – they weren’t interested in sustainable development.

There’s general agreement however that “greening” will need a combination of tools, including technology, pricing, rules, and better information for consumers. Simon Brooks of the European Investment Bank reminds us that greening will mean that some things are more expensive.

Nobody said “there’s no silver bullet”.

Patrick Love

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  1. Kaye LaPointe - 24/05/2011 Reply

    Okay, I’m usually a glass half full kind of person, but 2020……Please Coca-Cola…..that’s 9 more years of waste and environmental stress.

    Until the $ becomes less important (to industry and government) the rhetoric will continue and so will the finger pointing……..it all comes down to what is most important…..our survival on this planet or $. Sadly, it may be the $.

    Why can’t ALL new construction be “green,” for us and developing nations. We should be doing things, thus setting an example and standard and then trying to put it in place for others. Right now all we do is talk a good game about the environment! All goes back to that parable of pointing at the speck of dust in another’s eye…..when you have a log in your own!

    All I can say is…..well……it starts with us, maybe if we keep pressing and practicing then there will be a turn around, but will it be in time to save the planet for future generations….that is still to be decided!

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