Published on January 24, 2012

Putting the ‘social’ into the Green Economy

By Rosalie Callway

Rosalie is supporting Involve in looking at the central role of public engagement in delivering sustainable development, identifying new opportunities for engagement, building the evidence base for how engagement can assist changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as ways to scale up engagement.

Wildpoldsried, no creditIn pondering about the forthcoming UN Rio+20 Summit, focusing on the Green Economy, I recently watched a video from the UN Research Institute for Social Development looking at the challenge of making ‘green’ economies also socially ‘inclusive’. The speakers are clear in their criticism of our current progress. They talk about how we are maintaining the current obsession with ‘economic growth’ and the ‘unrealistic’ view that new green technologies can decouple that growth from its environmental impacts. What the discussants seem to have missed however is the picture in practice – what do alternative models of an ‘inclusive green economy’ actually look like? Where do people fit into that picture in reality?

Much of the discussion about the ‘social’ in green economy focuses on the fact that it can generate new jobs. The Green Alliance of Portsmouth, Newhampshire USA is one illustration of how it can offer so much more. A network of nearly 100 local businesses and employing about 1,851 people, it demonstrates that energy and resource-efficient businesses can be started by communities themselves. They have produced a profitable alternative to normal business practice. And have brought wider community impacts too;

The apparel we make is encouraging people to rethink the lifecycle of things they buy. We are inspiring a smarter consumer, a consumer that rewards socially responsible companies with their dollars.” Dennis Randall, CEO of Earthtec and member of Green Alliance.

Green businesses, like those in Green Alliance, are given positive encouragement by the federal government. For example New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning has established the ‘Green Launching Pad’, with funding from US Dept of Energy. The GLP is a green business incubator based at the University of New Hampshire (State Impact, viewed January 2012). It is a collaborative fund, connecting entrepreneurs and private industry with technical and business academics and state-level resources. It demonstrates the value of government acting as a community ‘enabler’, encouraging people to launch and accelerate the growth of new green businesses

Communities themselves are offering real leadership in moving towards a greener economy. The village community of Wildpoldsried in Germany is driving energy efficiencies to such a degree they are producing three times more renewable energy than they need and putting it back on the grid (Biocycle, August 2011). Again the community is supported by the town council. This is vital to make progress on practical issues from planning and funding, through to development and maintenance of new infrastructure and services.

A third example comes from the Municipality of Ravenna (Italy). It was recently been awarded for its use of participatory planning and partnerships to drive water and waste efficiencies, as part of its EMAS programme (Environmental Management system). Strong community involvement led to a reduction of daily water consumption per inhabitants by 6% between 2008 and 2010 in one district. A partnership a private company, Hera Ravenna, for waste collection involved around 13,000 students and their families. The number of families that bring their waste to ecological stations doubled since the launch of the project. Additionally, the municipal “Agenda 21” website allows stakeholders and the public to view urban development projects. They are continually informed and can participate directly by making recommendations and proposals on development projects (EMAS Team, Environment DG, European Commission, December 2011).

One of the challenges for local government, as with central government, is that it’s leadership is temporary. This can impact directly on continuity of programmes supporting communities on the green economy. In July 2008 Somerset County Council agreed to support various local ‘Transition Town’ initiatives aiming at stimulating low carbon communities. The British elections of 2010 saw many councils, including Somerset, switch political hands. Sadly for those involved in transition initiatives in Somerset it also resulted in pulling back of support by the county council.

From a Transition perspective, there is a huge amount that local authorities can do if they take an engaged and pro-active role in the process of building resilience in their area. There are some great examples of councils working with their local Transition groups. Woking and Kirklees spring to mind as councils that are doing bold and visionary work on climate change.” (Transition Towns, March 2011).

Recognising the importance of community-led green economy initiatives and enabling them to flourish should not be a party-political issue. They can bring a number of wider benefits to communities and help ensure greater continuity in the long term. Experiences like ‘Mondragon’ in Spain and of cooperatives around the world indicate the scale of what is possible, given the right institutional frameworks (BBC Radio 4 ‘In-business’, Jan 2012). Such ‘inclusive’ business models need to be encouraged to grow in the environmental economy too.Mondragon_Hands, no credit

This is not a time to be indecisive or half-hearted in supporting local community actors who are trying to deliver innovative, efficient, equitable and environmentally-sound alternatives to the current economic system. The public sector needs to be an enabler rather than an obstacle to socially-inclusive green economies.

All this raises a key question for those keen to promote inclusive green economies – what are the most effective means of supporting dialogue / deliberation, community development and engagement in order to make this happen?

Local councils have a number of tools at their disposal, from procurement to training and skills development, for building open dialogue and direct support of community groups. I discuss these issues and tools in more detail in a contribution to the forthcoming book; “The Economy of Green Cities” (Otto-Zimmermann, April 2012).

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