When Worlds Collide #19: How Green is the Lankan Economy?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 10 June 2012

A Ship of Fools, cartoon by Chris Madden

The Lankan economy is seen or projected in different colours and hues.

The Parliamentary opposition often tells us the economy is in the red. The Central Bank, with its new penchant for spin, reassures that the macroeconomic factors are all very…rosy.

But just how GREEN is our economy? Who thinks — or cares — about that aspect? What are the main gaps and challenges?

These questions are worth asking as governments of the world converge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development this month. The conference is also known as Rio+20, counting upwards from the original Earth Summit that city hosted in June 1992.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

A green economy is one that is low carbon (emits less Carbon Dioxide by burning less petroleum and coal); resource efficient (uses natural resources more thriftily); and socially inclusive (shares economic benefits among rich and poor alike).

This sounds a bit idealistic, but it isn’t Utopian. In a new report issued last November, UNEP noted how ‘green shoots’ of a green economy are already emerging in many countries, rich and poor. The signs are especially promising in the electricity and energy sectors worldwide – spurred, no doubt, by high oil prices.

The report, titled Towards a Green Economy, analysed how investing 2% of the global GDP in the green economy could unleash new “economic growth and positive social outcomes”.

“There will always be those who smile skeptically at the mere notion of a Green Economy and dismiss such far-reaching transitions,” says Achim Steiner, head of UNEP. “It is time to put the numbers on the table and show how advances in solar power alone are starting to prove them wrong.”

Maverick economists

We have come a long way to reach that point, and a deal of thinking and analysis has been done over the past 40 years. Maverick economists like Ernst Schumacher and Barbara Ward were pathfinders who challenged conventional economic wisdom and broadened collective thinking.

Schumacher’s 1973 book ‘Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered’ is ranked among the 100 most influential books published since the Second World War. Ward, an early advocate of sustainable development years before that term became familiar, co-wrote (with René Jules Dubos) the path-breaking book, ‘Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet’ for the first 1972 UN conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.

Frustrated by narrow and myopic focus prevailing at the time, both urged a more holistic and longer term view. The specifics they used are now dated, but their big ideas continue to inspire.

In March, I was at a Colombo symposium to mark Schumacher’s birth centenary. We heard how he had been well ahead of his time – as if he was setting the thought agenda for this century (see: http://schumacheref.blogspot.com)

Engineer Asoka Abeygunawardana, Executive Director of Energy Forum and Adviser to the Ministry of Power and Energy, noted that Schumacher had “seriously questioned the idea of unlimited and uncontrolled economic growth until everybody is saturated with wealth, on two counts: the availability of basic resources and, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference.”

Asoka said the government has “indicated its commitment to achieve carbon neutral growth in the power sector by 2020” and to follow a carbon emissions reduction pathway after 2030. Displaying uncommon candour for a policy-influencer, he added: “If the government is to achieve these targets, then it is necessary to remove key technical and economical bottlenecks.”

So does it mean the government’s mind is willing — but the body (politic) is not? Where and what exactly are roadblocks?

A Blueprint for Green

In 2008, the government set up a National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) chaired by the President and comprising 22 ministers in charge of major economic development programmes. It is meant to shape the policy agenda and guide implementation of the Haritha (green) Lanka Programme, which has 10 broad mission areas. Among them: providing clean air for all, responsible land use, greening our cities and industries, and coping with climate change. (Read full document at: http://tiny.cc/HarithaLP)

But progress has been poor, largely due to lack of coordination within government. The Ministry of Environment has tried hard to promote green economy concepts but, according a senior insider, other ministries have been slow to reorient their ways.

Unless the major custodians of natural resources and economic activity get fully involved, the green ministry can do little on its own to green our economy.

Take a recent example. The HLP action plan, under transport, aims to meet at least 10% of total Lanka’s petroleum requirement with biofuels by 2016. But we just heard media reports about exporting 10,000 tons of surplus corn to Taiwan and Canada.

The surplus corn could have been used to produce ethanol, without compromising our ability to feed our people. The foreign exchange savings on reduced petroleum imports would likely outweigh any export income for the corn.

When Lanka’s high level official delegation visits Rio this month, they should take a few moments to study Brazil’s biofuel experience. For nearly four decades, Brazilians have been mixing petrol with ethanol – made from sugarcane. In the early days, others made fun of Brazil’s ‘drunken cars’. Look who’s laughing now!

While we can learn from other developing countries, outsiders are not going to link up our disparate state agencies. That must come from within.

All at sea?

The Ministry of Environment was created in 1990 precisely for such policy coordination. Some of my environmentalist friends cheered that move, but their euphoria was short lived. In hindsight, a separate ministry ghettoised the larger cause of sustainable development.

To be fair, it’s a hard nut to crack and few developing countries have done it. Ministries and state bodies in charge of subjects such as finance, trade, agriculture, power generation and water resources might occasionally utter ‘green mantras’ — and then just continue business as usual…

If our economy were a large ship, the heavyweight players are the ones inside its engine room and navigation bridge. They decide where the ship goes, and how fast.

In this analogy, the Ministry of Environment has been dutifully cleaning the ship’s deck and rearranging the furniture. They have also seen hard rocks ahead (what icebergs in these days of global warming?) and been waving their hands to raise the alarm…

We can only hope that those steering and powering the ship of our economy would heed the green warnings before it’s too late.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Biofuels, Environment, Environmental policy, Green Economy, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Transport and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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