Green economy is about respecting nature's boundaries



Posted on 26 June 2013  | 
Executive Director Conservation WWF
Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director, Conservation of WWF International
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Born in Sweden, Lasse Gustavsson is based in Gland, Switzerland. He oversees and coordinates WWF’s Global Conservation Programme. Lasse has been engaged in environmental and development issues since his early years and has a lifetime commitment to sustainable development and social change. He has his academic training in International Relations, Human Ecology and Development Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

The interview was made right after 'Saving resources: Moving towards a resource-efficient, green economy in the Danube Region' conference in Bulgaria.

Why is the development of green economy important?

Green economy is the new way of addressing the challenge we have to meet the ecological balance within the economy. The problem we have is that we over-consume the natural resources. We are living on a global level as if we have access to resources of one and a half planets.

And in Bulgaria it is as if you have access to 1.8 planets’ resources. You can live like that for a little while, but in order to live sustainable lives and to meet the basic needs of people today and tomorrow, we need to fit the consumption of natural resources to the carrying capacity of the planet.

So green economy is about respecting the planetary boundaries, making sure that we can produce and consume sustainably and that we create legal and economic incentives to do that on a scale that really matters.

You can make all the individual choices you like in the current system, but you still won’t come down to the one planet lifestyle. It’s simply not possible. In Sweden we live as if we have three planets. If you make the sustainable choices in transport, housing and food you will only move to two planets.

So a systemic change is required and green economy is part of that. We have to really fit in the economy within the ecology. And ecology is the outer boundary to what is possible over time. You can do anything in the short period of time but if you want to live a long and healthy life there are some things that need to be changed. And our biggest challenge is over-consumption of natural resources.

But does the planet have the capacity to allow us to live all sustainably for an indefinite period of time?

I have absolutely no doubt that it does. I think Ghandi put it: ‘There is enough for everyone’s need but not to everybody’s greed’.

But we also need to develop our economies. If you think about food production which is probably one of the biggest challenges - for the first time in many, many, many years we are not producing enough food for everybody on this planet.

It’s a combination – we are getting more and more people, of course, and there is so much pressure on the natural resources now because of food production, but also because of biofuels.

The least productive African farmer would get just one percent of the harvest of the most productive one. There are many things we can do within the economy which is not necessarily hectares for food production. We can actually produce better. But this also means to consume more wisely.

For someone like me who lives in Switzerland, probably one of the richest countries on the planet, you need to think about how much is enough. Can I get a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger stake or is there something else that I need in my life to make me happy?!

For somebody who is suffering for not getting enough, that’s not the question. The question is ‘How do I get the food, the water, the energy, the materials that I need’.

At one point in the development there is a disconnect between increasing the economy and increasing happiness. In 1977 we reached that point in Sweden. There’s social science behind that. From 1977 and onwards the Swedish economy has been growing but people are not happier than they were in 1977. Imagine, this was before the internet. (laughing)

It’s different questions to different people and societies – for Switzerland it’s one thing, for Bulgaria it’s another, for Peru and Ecuador it’s maybe a third thing. So it’s not one size fits all and it’s not one solution for everybody but the key principle is we have to keep our consumption and resources into the planet’s capacity.

But some people in our region suggest that we should first build a Western-European style of economy before we switch to a more sustainable one.

There is one thing that strikes me and I have been to Bulgaria for about 48 hours – I can’t count how many times people have told me that Bulgaria is a poor country. But that’s wrong – Bulgaria is not a poor country. You have enormous wealth in natural resources. The question then is why that doesn’t show up in economic books, why don't your forests, rivers or natural resources count, why it is just money that counts.

The question for Bulgaria is how can we get more economic benefits for the people up to the resources that we have, how can we manage our resources in a sustainable way and how can we share the benefits from the ecosystems that you have. Because from an ecosystem point of view, Bulgaria is a rich country.

But how can you calculate this wealth and show people that indeed this is wealth?

I am not an economic scholar but this debate has been going on for 20 years. But I do know this: a country with plenty of natural resources, clean drinking water (we were drinking water from Vitosha Nature Park near Sofia when we visited it yesterday) and relatively clean air is a rich country, compared to a country with no natural resources, polluted air and unhealthy drinking water.

How to fit that into the national economy is somebody else’s task but clearly that kind of resource needs to be evaluated.
Executive Director Conservation WWF
Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director, Conservation of WWF International
© wwf.se Enlarge

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