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Sustainable Development and Green Economy

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Sustainable development has been the overarching goal of the international community since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also known as the famous Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.

In fact, the term, sustainable development, was popularized in “Our Common Future”, a report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. Also known as the Brundtland report, Our Common Future included the “classic” definition of sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Acceptance of the report by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly gave the term political salience; and in 1992 leaders set out the principles of sustainable development at the Earth Summit. It is generally accepted that sustainable development calls for a convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity, and environmental protection.

In the run up to Rio+20 that took place in Rio in June 2012, also marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark first Earth Summit held in 1992, the concept of ‘Green Economy’ in the context of Sustainable Development and poverty eradication attracted wide attention and was one of two themes for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Though there is no internationally agreed definition on Green Economy, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed a working definition of a green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.

However, negotiations on the concept of green economy during Rio+20 were extremely challenging in the absence of an internationally agreed definition on green economy. There was a divide between developed and developing countries in terms of the concept’s interpretation.

Developed countries, in general, saw Green Economy as a framework to make a transition towards low carbon economy, promote energy efficiency, management of natural resources and develop renewable and clean energy. They were of the view that this transition can be achieved by adopting targeted policies and regulations, creating the right market conditions and investing on research and development.

Developing countries, on the other hand, were of the view that Sustainable Development as defined by the Rio principles along with its three pillars viz., economic, social and environmental must continue to define global development path. In their understanding, ‘green economy’ is subsumed in this broader framework and action on green growth can only be achieved if an enabling mechanism consisting of finance, technology and capacity building support is provided to developing countries.

The global community at the Heads of State level met in Rio+ 20 reviewed the progress made; identified implementation gaps, and assessed new and emerging challenges, which resulted in a political outcome called the ‘The Future We Want’. The outcome document of Rio+20 has a detailed section on Green Economy.The outcome document affirms that there are different approaches, visions, models, and tools available to each country, in accordance with its national circumstances and priorities, for achieving sustainable development. Most importantly, it identifies green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication as one of the important tools for achieving sustainable development but specifies that while it could provide options for policy-making it should not be a rigid set of rules. The outcome document clearly states what green economy policies should result in and what they should not and also puts in place detailed principles on Green Economy.

In this context, it states that Green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should:

  1. Be consistent with international law;
  2. Respect each country’s national sovereignty over their natural resources taking into account its national circumstances, objectives, responsibilities, priorities and policy space with regard to the three dimensions of sustainable development;
  3. Be supported by an enabling environment and well-functioning institutions at all levels with a leading role for governments and with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including civil society;
  4. Promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, foster innovation and provide opportunities, benefits and empowerment for all and respect of all human rights;
  5. Take into account the needs of developing countries, particularly those in special situations;
  6. Strengthen international cooperation, including the provision of financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer to developing countries;
  7. Effectively avoid unwarranted conditionalities on official development assistance (ODA) and finance;
  8. Not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade, avoid unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country, and ensure that environmental measures addressing trans-boundary or global environmental problems, as far as possible, are based on an international consensus;
  9. Contribute to closing technology gaps between developed and developing countries and reduce the technological dependence of developing countries using all appropriate measures;
  10. Enhance the welfare of indigenous peoples and their communities, other local and traditional communities and ethnic minorities, recognizing and supporting their identity, culture and interests, and avoid endangering their cultural heritage, practices and traditional knowledge, preserving and respecting non-market approaches that contribute to the eradication of poverty;
  11. Enhance the welfare of women, children, youth, persons with disabilities, smallholder and subsistence farmers, fisher folk and those working in small and medium-sized enterprises, and improve the livelihoods and empowerment of the poor and vulnerable groups in particular in developing countries;
  12. Mobilize the full potential and ensure the equal contribution of both women and men.

The outcome on Green Economy in Rio+20 is perceived as a forward looking and useful one for any discourse on Green Economy especially in view of the fact that many international organizations are turning their attention to the concept and tries to help countries design and implement policies to move towards a green economy.

As far as India is concerned, sustainable development in terms of environmental concerns has been a recurring theme in Indian policy and planning.The pillars of sustainable development are embedded in the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution,which lay down the framework for social justice in India. Article 21 conferring the Right to Life has been assigned the broadest interpretations by the judiciary to encompass the right to a clean environment, right to livelihood, right to live with dignity, and a number of other associated rights.The National Environment Policy 2006 has attempted to mainstream environmental concerns in all developmental activities. The Government of India, through its various policies, has been factoring ecological concerns into the development process so that economic development can be achieved without permanently damaging the environment.The Twelfth Five Year Plan’s explicit theme is 'faster, more inclusive and sustainable growth'process. It is the first time that a Five Year Plan has“sustainability” as a prominent focus.


  2. Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012- Background Paper, September 2010
  3. Sustainable Development and Climate Change, Chapter 12, Economic Survey 2012-13, Government of India

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