Since coming back from the Bonn Conference on the water, food and energy nexus, where I met up with fellow civil society activists, I have been trying to figure out how we can stand against the corporate machine building up towards RIO+20.
The Bonn conference organized by the German government in November 2011 aims to influence Rio+20 (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) outcomes while using transformation to a Green Economy as a framework. The follow-up conference will be organized by the World Economic Forum in January 2012 and its policy recommendations will also go through a “test” at a Ministerial Round Table at the 6th World Water Forum in mid-March 2012.
What stood out at Bonn was how increasingly aware of its image the corporate machine is and how it has learned to package its message in a more palatable way, while trying to get civil society “participation” to legitimize its decisions. This new, softer rhetoric means that it is harder to see what truly lies behind seemingly well-intentioned speeches. Most of the outcomes of the conference were decided beforehand, but the dominant rhetoric repeatedly placed emphasis on poverty eradication and inclusive growth – how to make resource efficiency work for the “bottom billion” (flagged up by many of us at the conference as a term that should stop being used). Yet the essence of what the Green Economy actually is – turning the financial, environmental and climate crisis into an economical gain was largely absent.
In a Green Economy world, the financialization of nature will take place through new technologies, focusing on innovations funded by public money to profit private companies in the name of resource efficiency. Among the nexus solutions are the promotion of desalination based on renewable energy, genetic engineering/breeding for food security and large dams.
The financialization of nature will also take place through financial mechanisms, such as the creation of a virtual market to manage the allocation of our commons. Water markets and trade-able rights, payments for ecosystem services, the economic value of “natural infrastructure” are all instruments that are part of the nexus solutions as well as the Green Economy. Policies to allow these financial mechanisms to take place have also been envisioned, demonstrated by numerous calls for governments to integrate these instruments into their negotiations.
The nexus idea in itself is difficult to argue against. Governments have been handling water, food security and energy policy separately for too long, it is only positive that policies for our commons should be integrated and that the use of one resource consider impact on others. However, the nexus within a Green Economy framework crucially ignores more integrated indigenous ways of taking care of and sharing natural resources, and aims to replace public services with market mechanisms.
Experience has shown that market schemes like REDD have not helped in climate change mitigation and have had negative impacts on local communities. Why push ahead with such market mechanisms when the past few years have only shown how miserably these have failed? At a conference in the European Parliament before Bonn, a speaker from the UNEP International Resources Panel insisted it should be Finance ministers dealing with the environmental crisis and not Environment ministers, because they are (allegedly) the ones who know how to evaluate environmental systems properly. Their aim is to transfer the entire logic of nature functions into financial market functions. It is hard to see how this point of view could lead to technological advances and investment mechanisms that promote social and environmental justice.
To the organizers’ credit, the rights based approach was also a topic of discussion at Bonn, one of the few panels with more civil society representation. However, instead of looking at the rights based approach as a way to holistically manage our natural commons, it was often seen as a poverty eradication tool and only reserved for the marginalized poor. This line of thinking was omnipresent at the entire conference, where finding the right “incentives” was crucial for the developed world, while payment for ecosystem services was reserved for the developing world. This also makes one wonder whether they are serious about the rights based approach or whether they felt it needed to be added to the discourse to make sure they were being politically correct.
The Bonn conference completely ignored the European financial crisis. Focus was placed solely on private finance and how to create incentives for private investment, with no space whatsoever left for finding solutions for public financing. Instead, we should be looking at innovative global taxation methods and at appropriate national tax frameworks. The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) was never mentioned, though seems to have made it into the “points to be considered” of the final policy recommendations thanks to input from civil society after the conference. Another point civil society managed to add for consideration was the restriction of investor speculation on commodities during times of shortage.
The nexus may sound like a new idea but it does not distinguish itself from the corporate trends of best practice and voluntary guidelines, clearly preferring that route to regulation and enforcement. While they made everyone stand up and clap at the new “nexus” solutions, to the extent of inventing a special “nexus clap”, the question still remained: how exactly is the nexus in the framework of a Green Economy going to contribute to a fairer and more sustainable world? How is it going to help fulfill our right to water, food and energy? We have a fairly good idea about who will benefit from it and the likely candidates will definitely not be the environment or the “bottom billion”.