The Boston University Pardee Center recently released this report on Governance for a Green Economy: Beyond Rio+20: Governance for a Green Economy. The report was released at a recent UN meeting preparing for the 2012 Rio+20 conference. Below is an edited version of my chapter in the report.
by David L. Levy
A global transition to a sustainable economy requires the large-scale mobilization of our financial, technological, and organizational resources. Climate change is one of the major concerns of this century, and it has been estimated that annual global investment of more than $500 billion will be needed over the coming decades to keep warming within a 2 degs. C limit. The vast scale of these investments and the need to integrate sustainable technologies, practices, and products across the supply chains of every economic sector highlight the importance of creating governance structures that will redirect corporate resources toward sustainability.
Growing concern about an international “governance deficit” has fuelled this embrace of private resources and capacity. It is important, however, to recognize that large companies are already, de facto, highly engaged in the fabric of global environmental governance systems in their roles as polluters, investors, suppliers, buyers, innovators, lobbyists, and marketers. Private decisions over products and processes, technologies and research, and distribution and sourcing have vast environmental consequences with wide societal ramifications and broad geographic reach.1
The Complexity of Carbon Lock-In
It is our current governance systems over energy and transportation that produce carbon lock-in, the “interlocking technological, institutional and social forces…that perpetuate fossil fuel-based infrastructures in spite of their known environmental externalities.”4 Lock-in is more than an economic and technological phenomenon. Institutions such as the mass media, unions, government agencies, and professional certification bodies generate standards, rules, norms, routines and cultural practices that stabilize the dominant technologies. The automobile, for example, is intimately connected to our patterns of work, leisure, and shopping. Organizations with vested interests associated with existing technologies, such as industry associations and unions, become powerful actors who perpetuate the status quo. An understanding of the complexity, interdependencies, and inertia of the current system highlights the challenges of a sustainability transition.
Against this background, what governance institutions and mechanisms could generate change? Here we must heed Machiavelli’s warning to avoid wishful thinking and start with the world as it is. It is pointless to preach to consumers to abandon their cars and plane travel, or to admonish companies to give priority to sustainability. Economic activity is deeply embedded in economic and social institutions, and companies are constrained by corporate governance, capital markets, competition, and the wider consumer culture. It is naïve to simply specify “ideal” governance institutions that would, for example, create a high global price for carbon, mandate clean production systems, and empower non-financial stakeholders. Meaningful change requires careful study of the contested terrain of corporate environmental practice and governance, and a long-term strategy to win new allies, reframe the issues, shift norms, realign economic incentives, and craft new rules and oversight mechanisms. What we need is a strategic approach to building governance for a green economy. (more…)