Corporate monopolies ‘may dominate green economy’

First, the oil rush, then the biomass rush Copyright: Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory

[NEW DELHI] The global push towards a ‘green economy’ risks being hijacked by large corporate monopolies trying to gain control over natural resources, a report has warned.

There is a growing emphasis on the concept of a green economy in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), in June 2012, in Brazil. A green economy is widely seen as a way of tackling environmental challenges including climate change, failing fisheries and water security.

But a report released earlier this month (14 December) has warned that global companies, positioning themselves for a post-petrochemical future, may use the idea as a pretext for gaining control over biomass resources, which would eventually replace petroleum as the feedstock for energy and for industrial products.

The report, published by an international nongovernmental organisation Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Conservation (ETC Group), in Canada, says that most of this biomass is in developing countries, where it is managed by poor peasants, forest dwellers, fishing communities and livestock-owners whose livelihoods depend on them.

The report urges developing countries to craft policies that will protect them from such encroachments.

If they do not, they risk being "seduced" by the promise of quick green techno-fixes, which appear as "a politically expedient" alternative plan to save the climate, the report says, because "techno fixes are not capable of addressing systemic problems of poverty, hunger and environmental crises".

"In the absence of effective and socially responsive governance and government oversight, the bio-based economy will result in further environmental degradation, unprecedented loss of biodiversity and the loss of remaining commons," it says.

The report’s authors said they were not rejecting the concept of green economy, but that countries should build sustainable economies based on using new, more socially and ecologically sustainable economic models.

Hoysala Chanakya, principal research scientist, at the centre for sustainable technologies at the Indian Institute of Science, said that the report was right to highlight that there was potential for corporate take-overs in the absence of adequate policy support and that developing countries need to have policies to ensure that public resources do not get monopolised.

He added that the assumption that technological advances in algal or plant-based biofuel systems, for example, would solve environmental problems, is based partly on hype.

"The [biomass-based] technologies are still in a stage of infancy," Chanakya said. They also leave lots of organic waste which can be polluting, he added.

Other sustainable development policy experts in India suggested that a solution to some of the problems forecast by ETC Group was to decentralise food and energy security programmes and push for small, farmer-centred agriculture.

Instead of the "overarching generalised programmes involving blanket application of solar or hydrogen power" developing countries should move towards decentralised, locally-managed food and energy security programmes that are rooted in their unique local environments, said Rajeswari Raina, scientist at National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies.

Ambuj Sagar, professor of policy studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, agreed: "We need a different narrative that places value on the livelihoods of small farmers in developing countries rather than on food production at lowest cost and protecting interests of farmers in industrialised countries through subsidies."

"Private-sector and market-oriented food and agriculture systems are unlikely to deliver this kind of outcome since that is not the primary objective of these actors and institutions."

Link to full report