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Rio+20: Where is the Path to Sustainable Development?

How do we need to reshape the world economy, our city's infrastructures and our lifestyles to protect the environment? What strategies can countries follow to jumpstart sustainable development, curtail environmental destruction and eradicate poverty? Those are issues that will be debated at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also referred to as Rio+20, set for June 20-22, which marks 20 years since the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, site of this year’s conference. The goal of the June meeting is to "reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet," according to the United Nations.

Participants will come to Rio+20 from all over the world, and include politicians, economists, non-governmental organizations, and civil society groups including hundreds of indigenous leaders. Central to discussions are the concepts of sustainable development and the green economy.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), sustainable consumption and production, and the green economy are "two sides of the same coin." While sustainable consumption and production focus on resource efficiency, such as renewable energy, the green economy considers green economic policy and job creation. Making those ideas reality may be complex. The basic concepts of sustainability and an economy that supports it don't seem controversial. However, a particular aspect of the green economy has sparked debate.

The UNEP's description of the green economy includes a reference to natural capital as "a critical economic asset," among other factors. The World Bank defines natural capital as "A stock of natural resources – such as land, water, and minerals – used for production." Though it's clear that natural resources are important, how, and whether, they can be valued as economic assets is a complicated conversation.

"The economic invisibility of ecosystems and biodiversity is a major cause of losses of the services they provide," Pavan Sukhdev, former head of UNEP’s green economy initiative, told Our Planet Magazine in 2010. "The resulting losses to human welfare are estimated to amount to trillions of dollars in lost natural capital every year, and the poor are hurt most because their livelihoods and incomes depend most on ecosystem services."

The logic follows that if ecosystems were economically visible, governments could do more to protect them. For example, Rachel Kyte, vice president for Sustainable Development for The World Bank, wrote about mangrove swamps in Thailand for a World Bank blog.

"When you look at just the timber value of the mangroves, they are valued at around $955 per hectare," she wrote. "Replacing them with shrimp farms would return around $11,000 per hectare. So, conventional economics would favor conversion to shrimp farming. But when you factor in the mangroves’ critical role as storm and flood barriers, their value rises to over $20,000 per hectare. If this information and this kind of thinking had been active earlier, the large swathes of mangroves around the Gulf of Thailand that were destroyed for shrimp farming and coastal development, might still be intact."

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On the other hand, there are people who see tremendous destructive potential in the idea of nature as an economic asset. "Green Economy is an attempt to put a price on the free services that plants, animals and ecosystems offer humanity: the purification of water, the pollination of plants by bees, the protection of coral reefs and climatic regulation," wrote Pablo Solon, former Bolivian ambassador to the U.N., on his personal blog. "Is there no contradiction in recognizing only the rights of the human part of this system while all the rest of the system is reduced to a source of resources and raw materials – in other words, a business opportunity?"

So is making natural capital an economic asset a way to value and protect the environment for all of us, or a way to put a price tag on nature and ultimately harm it? Are there paths to sustainable development that most nations can agree on? Stay tuned to Rio+20 for heated debate on those very questions.


United Nations, Rio+20

United Nations' Environmental Program Green Economy

The Guardian, on the World Bank and natural capital

Reuters, on Africa's natural capital