Introduction to the green economy

How do we deal with the world’s urgent interconnected economic and environmental crises? Different people are talking about the green economy as the solution – but not everyone agrees what this is.

Why Green Economy? is the meeting point for ideas from the global North and South on economics, energy, the environment and climate change as we move towards a more sustainable model on a finite planet.

The articles, research reports and videos on Why Green Economy? have been hand picked to guide you through the the latest debates around the future of the global economy. See related resources at the end of each page for a range of viewpoints.

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A brief history of the green economy

The idea of a more sustainable economy has been talked about for decades. A key moment was the publication of the report Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. In the last few years discussion around sustainability has become a key part of the global agenda. This is because the latest scientific studies and our direct experiences of environmental devastation and climate change are making it clear the economic model needs to change. The green economy was the central theme of the major United Nations conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in Rio in June 2012.

Green economy Timeline

Our increasing understanding of the scale of environmental degradation and the changing climate have pushed the idea of a green economy up the global agenda in recent years. Some key events over the last few decades include:

Rio Earth Summit1972 Stockholm conference

1987 Brundtland Report

1992 Earth Summit and Agenda 21

2012 Rio+20 conference

Why is there a debate about what the green economy is?

The green economy means different things to different people. Sometimes these perspectives overlap and sometimes they contradict each other. Some groups reject the concept of a green economy. The aim of Why Green Economy? is to present these diverse viewpoints in one place.

The examples below illustrate just two perspectives on the green economy:

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)The key reference point for much of the work on the green economy comes from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): “A green economy is 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.” Read a summary of the UNEP Green Economy Report

(No green economy, creative commons)Meanwhile the view of civil society movements who held an alternative summit during the UN Sustainable Development conference Rio+20 in June 2012 concluded: “The so-called “green economy” is just another facet of the current financial phase of capitalism, which also makes use of old and new mechanisms, such as the deepening of the public-private debt, the hyperstimulation of consumption, the concentration of ownership of new technologies, carbon and biodiversity markets, land grabbing, increased foreign ownership of land, and public-private partnerships, among others.” Read the final declaration of the People’s Summit at Rio+20

In summary there are a diverse range of actors who claim the green economy as representing their viewpoint. This has led to confusion about how to define the green economy and to some groups rejecting the concept.

What are the key areas of debate?

  • Objectives of the economy – Current debates about how we measure growth and prosperity will have enormous ramifications for global trade, production and consumption patterns. More information
  • Energy – The energy sources we use in the future will be fundamental to how our societies and economies operate. More information
  • Valuing nature – Ideas about recognising nature’s true value (monetary and/or non-monetary) could revolutionise how we protect the environment, safeguarding it for future generations. More information

Maps, tools and infographics  Maps, tools and infographics




How could the green economy be relevant to your work?

The green economy brings together a vast area of policies and research. Many of the issues are inextricably linked together with likely domino effects. Below are some potential impacts on thematic areas:

Development model

Re-focusing of the development model in the global North and South with increasing weight of economic sectors based on energy and the environment (e.g. natural capital).

Strong links between conserving nature and reducing poverty.

Overseas aid promotes a green economy (e.g. potential conditionality).

More information on: green economy objectives     poverty and inequality     Rio+20

green growth      post 2015 MDGs and SDGs     beyond growth and GDP


Ideas about valuing nature could have a huge impact on how the environment is conserved.

New economic sectors based on the environment could change our use of nature (e.g. Bio-economy, natural capital)

More information onecosystem services      natural capital     REDD+     Rio+20


The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is at the heart of a green economy. The energy sources that are scaled up globally (fossil fuels or renewables) will determine if we are able to avoid irreversible climate change.

More information onclimate change     fossil fuels     renewable energy

Conflict and security

Climate change is already having impacts on existing conflicts and creating new ones. This is particularly the case between local communities in the global south over access to resources.

Potential future conflicts linked to the green economy within or between local communities could be due to:

  • Climate mitigation projects (e.g. increases conflicts over land use and ownership)
  • Climate adaptation projects (e.g. unequal distribution of aid)
  • Natural capital projects (e.g. conservation restricts livelihoods)
  • Control over and location of energy projects (e.g. large-scale dams)

More information on: conflict and security     poverty and inequality     climate change    natural capital

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