Time to turn the PAGE?

The Partnership for Action on Green Economy is an international alliance of UN agencies, partner organisations and governments working together for a transition to a green and sustainable economy. The alliance's third ministerial conference aimed to showcase innovation and experience, but IIED's Laura Kelly felt a key ingredient was missing.

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17 January 2019

Laura Kelly is director of IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

On the eve of the UN PAGE event, Africa’s largest business TV network, CNBC, broadcast a live television debate on the topic: what makes your country wealthy? (Photo: Green Economy Coalition)

As UN meetings go, last week’s Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE): ‘Advancing inclusive and sustainable economies’ event in Cape Town looked like it could be interesting. A kick-off televised debate on CNBC Africa discussed how countries could support green and inclusive transitions. Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, emphasised the growing potential of biomass for energy – well, what he actually said was if Birmingham and Bristol could run their busses on ‘shit’, then why not Cape Town? 

You can watch a video of the debate below or on YouTube.

You don’t usually hear that kind of colourful language at UN meetings, nor delivered so directly, so I had high expectations that this would not be just another talk fest and that concrete ways of addressing poverty, climate change, resource degradation would be shared.  

Bottom up green economy

I also had reasons for optimism having been at the Green Economy Coalition (GEC) Global Meeting just before PAGE, where organisations from across Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean had shared their experience of supporting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop inclusive, green business models. IIED is a member of the GEC, a network of more than 50 organisations working towards sustainable economic models. 

Among the most innovative approaches I learned about is the Radar tool, developed by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) to help small businesses use natural resources sustainably, climate-proof their enterprises and help to empower communities. 

SMEs can use Radar (PDF) to assess their ESG (environment, social and governance) impacts, just like the approach that global corporations use to show their investors they’re concerned about their social and environmental impacts (more on this later). SMEs already using radar range from chocolate and honey producers to companies producing crafts from natural products and ecotourism. The map that results from using radar helps companies assess their impacts and identify areas where they need to do more.

CANARI’s Radar tool helps small and micro enterprises assess their impacts. Here Kemba Jaramogi from Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project in Trinidad and Tobago presents their Radar. (Photo: CANARI)

The map can also help identify the kind of government support required to help these green, inclusive business grow. For example, by improving the policy, legal and regulatory environment for SMEs; improving access to finance, technology and market information; promoting and facilitating knowledge exchange; and creating ways for SMEs to influence policymaking to ensure that their needs are addressed.  

I was impressed, and I hoped I’d hear more real examples from the governments, UN agencies, business and other participants at PAGE – but I was disappointed. Despite speaker after speaker highlighting the importance and urgency of transitioning to fairer, greener economies, public and private finance requirements and the need for different stakeholders to work together to achieve this, there were very few concrete examples of doing it or lessons learned. 

Business with purpose

Perhaps part of the problem was the lack of business in the room? While government is central to creating the policy environment and incentives for green economies – it’s business of all sizes that create the jobs make the investments and generate revenues that will make it happen.

In addition to the kind of SMEs CANARI and other GEC hubs are supporting, leading global businesses are now focusing more on their social and environmental impact. Unilever, with its ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ and KPIs aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is among the leaders, and increasingly investors are using their ESG assessment to support businesses with social purpose. 

Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock, the $6.5tn investment manager, wrote to CEOs in advance of the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos last year, saying they would be considering companies' purpose in their future investment decisions. While he didn’t go as far as defining what social purpose (and BlackRock has yet to divest itself of some socially questionable companies), it sent a strong message that short-term shareholder returns should not come at the expense of longer term environmental sustainability and positive social outcomes.  

Fink also wrote that governments were failing to prepare for the future and that companies needed to benefit consumers and the communities they operate in. This isn’t to say companies have the ‘silver bullet’ solution for green economies but they’re a key to making them happen and PAGE, with its multi-stakeholder approach, could provide a forum to make concrete progress on issues such as defining and measuring progress on ‘social purpose’, how government policy can support it and how civil society can hold business to account for their social and environmental commitments. 

It’s time to move beyond the clarion calls made in Cape Town about the global importance and urgency of transitioning to a green economy and turn the PAGE and get down to the ‘business’ of achieving it.  

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