Rio+20 Factsheet: Federal Office for the Environment

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Green Economy: Conserving Resources, Eradicating Poverty, Generating Prosperity

The issue of a green economy will feature on the global policy agenda for the first time at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development from 20 to 22 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio+20 conference should enable the pooling and combining of various international initiatives and strategies for a green economy. In view of its importance for the future development of humanity, Switzerland has been campaigning in the run up to the conference for a “Green Economy Roadmap” containing a clear vision and concrete objectives, principles and instruments for the realisation of the green economy.

The earth is a limited planet with numerous finite resources, which cannot be renewed in periods that correspond to a human temporal scale. However, we humans are currently acting as though we had a second planet in reserve. Due to the continuously increasing demand for raw-material-intensive goods and services, the natural resources that sustain our lives – for example, soil, forests and groundwater sources – are already massively overexploited in some regions.

Based on the earth’s ecological carrying capacity, from a global perspective, we began to exceed the maximum admissible load in the mid-1980s. At a value approaching 1.5, humanity’s ecological footprint is now almost 50 percent higher than the environmentally sustainable level. And it is even higher in Switzerland. Hence, the global economy is not heading towards an ecological debt crisis, it is already in the throes of one. The clearly identifiable symptoms of this crises include, for example, global climate change through the enrichment of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, the loss of biodiversity and the loss of fertile soil.

Decoupling environmental pollution from economic and population growth

The aim must be to reduce humanity’s global ecological footprint to a level that can be sustained by our planet, as was consistently the case up to 1980. However, since then, the global population has increased from 4.4 to over 7 billion, and will continue to grow in the decades to come. In view of the rapid increase in prosperity, particularly in large newly-industrialised countries, the demand for raw materials and consumer goods is likely to continue to grow.

It is only possible to reduce the pressure on natural resources if economic growth is decoupled from environmental pollution. This means that the pollution of the air, climate, water and forests and the consumption of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, raw materials and soil must be reduced, even if the population and economy continue to grow.

Economic model reaching its limitations

The current economic model is clearly reaching its limits in terms of meeting these challenges. Hence, we need a green economy, an economic system, in which consumption and production only burden the environment to the level at which the natural resources available to us and future generations remain sufficient in terms of both quality and quantity. If we wish to avoid any deterioration in our quality of life, the main key to a green economy lies in increasing resource efficiency. This means that we must achieve greater economic performance with less environmental damage and lower resource consumption.

To achieve this, research must develop new, more efficient technologies and processes, businesses must use them in the development of products and in production processes, and the support of consumers must be gained for these resource-conserving products. In view of the rapid increase in overexploitation, this resource efficiency revolution must yield tangible results by 20 years from now, at the latest, and begin immediately. This will require a prompt change in our patterns of production and consumption. It is the equivalent of a new industrial revolution and requires clear political objectives.

Commitment on the part of the private sector and civil society

Swiss companies were among the pioneers of private-sector commitment to sustainable development from an early stage. In its national employers’ associations, for example Netzwerk für ökologisches Wirtschaften Öbu (Öbu Network for Sustainable Companies) and the swisscleantech association, Switzerland has organisations that support and strengthen the private sector’s efforts in the area of sustainable development. Many Swiss companies are committed to sustainable products and production processes; for example, the major retail companies are also the main promoters of the sales of eco-labelled products. Through the voluntary measures they undertake in accordance with the CO2 Act, Swiss companies make an important contribution to Switzerland’s fulfilment of its climate protection goals. Most Swiss companies are also involved in the United Nation’s Global Compact platform.

Information: Ambassador Franz Perrez, Head of the International Affairs Division FOEN, + 41 (0)79 251 90 15