Why We Don't Need to Choose Between the Environment and the Economy

11/26/2011 08:17 EST | Updated 01/26/2012 05:12 EST
Flickr: Scott Meis Photography

I've been an environmentalist for quite some time. Not surprisingly, my environmentalism has matured over the years in tandem with, or perhaps as a result of, some developments in the broader environmental movement.

When I was younger, I subscribed to the view that the economy and environment were opposing forces, and if you wanted to preserve the environment, that meant curbing economic growth. I no longer believe this to be necessarily true, and nor do large swaths of the environmental movement. Similarly, more and more businesses are coming to realize that better environmental performance does not come at the expense of profits. In fact, in many cases, quite the opposite is true.

Today, many people realize that it's not about the environment versus the economy, not a tradeoff between unemployment and pollution. It's not about picking one or the other. In short, we cannot choose between the environment and the economy. We need both. And this is our challenge: to create the conditions so that both can thrive.

This realization is at the heart of an emerging school of environmentalism often encapsulated by the term "green economy." It reflects a growing recognition that, on the one hand, the challenge of sustainability rests almost entirely in getting the economy right. Putting a price on carbon, valuing natural capital and ending perverse subsidies, among other things, are all vital to meaningful environmental reform.

And, on the other hand, if we wish to create a sustainable economy, we must pay more attention to the environment. Against a backdrop of climate change, resource scarcity, the massive loss of biodiversity and a variety of other environmental issues, business as usual is increasingly risky.

The notion of the green economy also differs from some other schools of thought by focusing on the opportunity presented by change, rather than the burden. To be sure, transitioning to a green economy will come at a cost. You have to slow down to turn a corner. But it is also the key to unlocking new opportunities for economic growth and jobs. At least, so says the OECD, among others.

The green economy will be one of the two themes at the upcoming conference on sustainable development, known as Rioრ, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, 20 years after the historic Earth Summit.

It is also the subject of a report officially released last week by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in preparation for the RIO+20 Summit, titled "Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication."

Their take-home point:

"With smart public policies, governments can grow their economies, generate decent employment and accelerate social progress in a way that keeps humanity's ecological footprint within the planet's carrying capacity."

Like I said, it's not about choosing one or the other, but about creating the conditions to support both the economy and the environment. It's also about finding ways to ensure a more equitable distribution of the spoils of progress.

UNEP's report acknowledges that this transition comes at a cost and, in the short term, some jobs will be lost. But in the medium to long term, we'll be much better off.

We can illustrate with an example from a recent report on China which concluded that 800,000 workers in small coal power plants in China will likely to lose their jobs due to climate mitigation actions, however, some 2.5 million jobs could be created by 2020 in the wind energy sector alone.

And this isn't just theory. Although they may be far from a green economy, according to recent accounts, China already counts over half a million renewable energy jobs. Germany has about 370,000 people employed in renewable energy manufacturing. The U.S. solar industry now employs over 100,000 people. And renewable energy is just one facet of the green economy. Nearly every major economy is pursuing some manner of green economic strategy because they see the opportunity therein.

I'm very excited by the emergence of the green economy and inspired by the global progress made toward it. As a concept, it has bridged the chasm between the environment and the economy, and created a space where people of diverse interests can come together and articulate a common vision. And as a practice, it is showing us that we can do things better.

We don't need to choose between our environment and economy. We need to choose both. And work toward bringing them into balance.