In primary school we learn “energy is the ability to do work” and that there are different forms of energy, including light, heat and sound. Everything that happens in the world involves energy. For instance, our bodies use energy from the food that we eat to regulate our temperature, breathe, move, see, talk, smell, and think. Energy in forms other than food is also essential for the growth and development of a country; energy is used to manufacture products, generate electricity, heat water, power vehicles and other forms of transport, and heat or cool homes. Additionally, energy enables food production and access to potable water. To obtain this energy, vast amounts of energy resourcesare extracted and burnt. In fact, ever since the Industrial Revolution worldwide consumption of energy has risen (Figure 1).The BPStatistical Review of World Energy (2011) indicates that the world’s primary energy consumption grew by 5.6% in 2010, the largest increase since 1973.This has been attributed to two factors: the rebound in industrial activity following the economic downturn; and the rapid economic growth in the developing world.
Twenty five years ago the discussion on development highlighted the necessity to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs in what was defined as Sustainable Development. It was recognized that any development paradigm had to improve the quality of life of the people while at the same time addressing the management of natural resources. Five years later the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) sought international consensus on the central role of health in the achievement of sustainable development. This meeting concluded with two outputs that sought to emphasise and reinforce this point. The first principle of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” This is reinforced by an entire chapter in Agenda 21 devoted to laying out the objectives and guidelines for ensuring the Protection and Promotion of Human Health. Health defined by the WHO (1948) is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Thus the interconnectedness and interdependence of economic, social and environmental development on the health of a population must be a key goal of sustainable development.
A ‘green economy’ model is now prevalent on the global policy agenda, seen as a critical factor in achieving sustainable development, and the necessary counter paradigm to the traditional ‘brown economy.’ A brown economy, an economy reliant on fossil fuels, has previously prevailed but has been characterised by unsustainable growth and consumption patterns, attendant widespread environmental degradation, as well as a failure to address economic and social inequities. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as one that results in “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” (UNEP, 2010). They state that “A green economy is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive [with] growth in income and employment … driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.” It thus supports the social, economic and environmental tiers of sustainable development.
Our economic, physical, mental and cultural health depends on the health of ecosystems and the “services” provided by the ecosystem. An ecosystem can be seen as “a complex of living organisms and the abiotic environment with which they interact in a specified location” (United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992). Although the concept of Ecosystem Services (ES) also known as Environmental Services has existed in scientific literature since the 1970s, it has only recently begun to receive attention in decision-making at the national level and on a global scale. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) is a study that was sponsored by the UN in 2003, in order to evaluate the state of the world’s ecosystems. This MEA is key to bringing attention to and promoting the application of the concept in planning and decision-making. It identified and assessed 24 specific ecosystem services, in the context of what it described as the “benefits people obtain from ecosystems.” The MEA classifies ES into four types: provisioning; regulating; cultural; and supporting services. Figure 1 presents an overview of these types of services and lists some of the ways in which they contribute to human well-being.
Two decades after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that brought us the three multilateral environmental agreements in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD), the concept of the Green Economy is once again entering the lexicon of policymakers, technocrats and academics as we prepare for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) (also known as Rio +20).