The idea of a “green economy” or “greening the economy” stems from the realisation that following the current energy and environment squandering growth path, which the world economy is following, threatens the future of humanity. The term “green economy” is used to refer to an economic system that through extensive investments in, among other things, resource efficiency and renewable energy results in improved human well-being and a significantly reduced risk of dangerous climate change and resource scarcity. While decarbonising the global economy is a laudable effort, concerns that this “new” paradigm continues to place the pursuit of profit above environmental concerns and the social and cultural interests of marginalised communities persist.

This article argues two issues: first, the green economy located in the neo-liberal agenda under corporate capture will not lead to a just transition and second, Africa should come up with its own solutions as the conceptualisation process of climate policy responses is dominated by the West which reproduces underdevelopment. The article gives particular attention to green economy programmes such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative and bio-fuel production whose design and attachment to market mechanisms expose communities to food insecurity and land grabbing, among other impacts.

The UNEP green economy package considers it to be essential (and normal) to put a price on the free services that plants, animals and ecosystems provide for the conservation of biodiversity, water purification, pollination of plants, the protection of coral reefs and regulation of the climate. It suggests that for the green economy to work, it is necessary to identify the specific functions of ecosystems and biodiversity and assign them monetary values, evaluate their current status, set a limit after which they will cease to provide services, and put a price on the cost of their conservation in order to develop a market for each particular environmental service.

As discussed below, however, market-based approaches to greening the economy may protect nature but also lead to the hyper-exploitation of the earth’s resources often with negative social impacts.

CDM, REDD and Biofuels as Examples of the Green Economy

Graphic: Allianz SE
Graphic: Allianz SE

The green economy is located within the contradictions of the global capitalist economy and evidence from some of its projects such as CDM, REDD and biofuels already show theses fissures.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, an international treaty that set binding obligations on industrialised countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, made investments in “clean” or low-carbon development in developing countries possible under the CDM. The CDM was to play a double role by helping developing countries achieve sustainable development while assisting industrialised countries to comply with meeting their emission reduction targets.

The main criticisms against the CDM is that it allows industrialised countries to meet part of their emission reduction commitments under the Protocol by buying Certified Emission Reduction units from emission reduction projects in developing countries without necessarily reducing activities that cause emissions in those countries. For instance, a country or corporate entity that can acquire high volumes of carbon credits in the developing world, where it is cheap to do so, due to low prices on land, commodity and labour would be considered green, even if it has not reduced carbon emission in its operations. Also, the mechanism pins emission reduction to the performance of the carbon market. As noted by the World Bank, the carbon market has already shown its volatility, growing in total value by 11% in 2011, to $176 billion, with transaction volumes reaching a new high of 10.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) but dropping to its lowest level, since 2004, by 2012. The collapse of the carbon market is linked to a declining demand for offsets due to economic turbulence, a growing long-term oversupply of carbon offsets in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and plummeting prices.

The REDD programme was developed from a 2005 proposal by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations lead by Papua New Guinea, which was discussed at COP 13 in Bali and became part of the Cancun Agreements at COP16 in 2010. Paragraph 70 of the Cancun Agreement “encourages developing country Parties to contribute to mitigation actions in the forest sector by undertaking the following activities, as deemed appropriate by each Party and in accordance with their respective capabilities and national circumstances: (a) reducing emissions from deforestation, (b) reducing emissions from forest degradation, (c) conservation of forest carbon stocks, (d) sustainable management of forest, and (e) enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”

In other words, governments, companies or forest owners in the South should be rewarded for keeping their forests instead of cutting them down, while on the other hand, those in the global North can buy carbon credits from such initiatives to offset their emissions.


For several reasons, trading the carbon stored in forests may well not lead towards a green(er) economy. Firstly, carbon trading does not reduce emissions – for every carbon credit sold, there is a buyer. As such, the developed countries with higher emission reduction targets can side-step the duty to reduce and prefer to buy carbon credits instead. Secondly, REDD-related payments are in the end not for keeping forests, but for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation which makes it possible for logging a forested area but compensating for the emissions by planting industrial tree plantations somewhere else. Apart from the superficial similarity of having trees as their dominant feature, forests and plantations are not the same thing. Even when it comes to the ability to store carbon, unlike healthy forests that permanently sequester CO2 as they mature, tree plantations can only temporarily remove CO2 from the atmosphere before being cut down and consumed, and can even cause increased release of carbon from the soil and natural vegetation.

In addition, the management of forest and forest land, forest access and rights are contested in local communities due to contradictions about community beneficiation. Forest carbon credits are complicated by the difficulties in measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests. Participating communities have no way of ensuring what they earn from carbon projects is fair value. Most African land tenure systems do not protect local communities from land grabs and speculators. The recent rush for Africa’s land through biofuel and climate-change related projects have led to a situation where tree plantations take precedence over agriculture, with negative implications for national and local food sovereignty. For example, research by the NGO Timberwatch in Tanzania has indicated that the transfer of land management to the local level has opened the floodgates of foreign corporate entities swindling land from unsophisticated rural governance structures in the name of development. Further to the land tenure concerns, the Tanzanian example shows that the positive impacts ascribed to REDD by its proponents are hard to establish in reality. The study used two outcome measures (adjusted household forest income and the share of adjusted household income from forest products) to evaluate the effect of the forest-sector reform on rural livelihoods coming to the conclusion that communities where carbon projects were implemented did not have an improved income/livelihood.

Another main pillar of the green economy concept is the issue of the so-called just transition to renewable sources of energy. Biofuels are mostly made from food crops such as maize, sorghum, cassava, soya bean, beet, oil palm and sugar cane as a substitute for more harmful fossil fuels in the form of “biodiesel” and “bio-ethanol”. Other non-food crops such as jatropha have been introduced to address criticism against food crop diversion to agrofuel production, seen as having a negative impact on food security. Jatropha is also suggested as contributing to land saving, as it would grow on “marginal” land and did not require much water. In reality, to be economically productive, jat-ropha trees must be grown under normal agricultural conditions, with a good natural water supply or under irrigation, as well as with fertilisation and chemical pest control measures. It makes absolutely no difference which crops are used to produce agrofuels; what does matter is the type of land that is taken for the purpose of growing agrofuel crops, and how converting that land to growing agrofuel crops will affect biodiversity, soil and water resources, and therefore the food sovereignty and security of local communities. Africa already hosts many capitalist enviro-prenuer projects that have invoked fears of land grabbing, green grabbing, community displacements and the destruction of biodiversity-rich habitats, with negative impacts on food sovereignty and security of supply.

Employees of Saudi Star, a Saudi agricultural company in Ethiopia, work the land. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Getty
Employees of Saudi Star, a Saudi agricultural company in Ethiopia, work the land. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Getty

The best examples of such land grabs include Ethiopia where the government earmarked nine million acres for lease to investors using the persistent famine in the country as justification. Of this land, millions of acres have already been “allocated”, with Saudi Arabian companies paying USD 50 Cents per acre. Saudi Arabia is not only involved in Ethiopia, but also in Tanzania, Mali, Senegal and Sudan. China leases more than nine million acres in Congo-Kinshasa, Qatar has access to at least 250,000 acres in Kenya, while Indian companies control over 800,000 acres in Sudan. Companies from Sweden and Norway have accessed land to cultivate jatropha for bio-diesel and timber for carbon credits in many countries in East, Central and Southern Africa. In Madagascar, such large-scale land transfer led to the mass movement that overthrew the president, who gave half of the island’s arable land to the South Korean company, Daewoo, for 99 years. These land deals operate on a top down system that lacks local community involvement and are not part of any home grown development plans, focused on local African production and consumption.

Concluding Thoughts

The green economy approach, like other externally designed development strategies, is not value, ideologically and interest-free. By their character, policies involve the authoritative allocation of values making them the operational statements of values and statements of prescriptive intent. This means that policies represent the values and aspirations of specific economic interests. The new global green economy is firmly located within capitalist networks, pushing for ecological modernisation projects as a solution to the climate change crisis as well as promising to attend to the multiple crises around fuel, food and ecology. By designing responses such as CDM and REDD, corporate agents and consultants created a new scope for speculative investments whose main current impact is green and land grabbing, while providing an opportunity for green washing. The underlying commercial and market intent of the green economy project within neo-liberalism leaves global environmental and economic crises interlocking and feeding off each other in the playing out of “disaster capitalism”. The green economy has no mechanism for redistribution of wealth and does not challenge the capitalist system that led to the current crisis in the first place. A just transition will only happen in the context of a dramatically different pattern of production and consumption – one based on a green(er) economy that rejects the use of market mechanisms for sustainable development and environmental justice.

The articulation of the green economy reflects a continued dominance of Western ways of seeing and rationalising the world. Photo: Shutterstock
The articulation of the green economy reflects a continued dominance of Western ways of seeing and rationalising the world. Photo: Shutterstock

Further, the articulation of the green economy reflects a continued dominance of Western ways of seeing and rationalising the world and the sidelining of local knowledge in determining development processes. The processes used to arrive at the current climate change policy regime are far from being consultative, especially when one considers the level of participation of poor people at the community level. Local involvement in shaping the current articulation and implementation of the green economy concept and associated programmes and projects is missing. A perusal of the climate change discourse through the UNFCCC process and the debates within its working groups shows that Western ways of seeing, knowing and resolving challenges dominates the climate change crusade and the analysis from which policy and responses are generated. Resolving African challenges requires that policy and programmes are built on indigenous thinking. Mitigation and adaptation strategies consistent with African community knowledge should be promoted to ensure meaningful and sustainable development and climate resilience. It is important that Africa invests in intellectual, academic and policy articulations that would pave a way towards a decolonial turn and help Africa to “unthink” some of the ideas that we have imbibed from the Euro-American establishment. Instead of blindly adopting programmes and projects developed elsewhere to facili-tate challenges faced by others in contexts dissimilar to our own, we must reanalyse for our benefit.

The green economy should be based on home grown interventions negotiated with communities and built on the centuries of indigenous knowledge on human-nature interaction, as a national duty rather than an economic pursuit. Indigenous knowledge on the environment and sustainability must be brought into the mainstream.