Rivers May Lose Out in the "Green Economy"

Zachary Hurwitz
The Congo River, at the Grand Inga site, from space.

It's an unenviable position to attempt to reconcile the interests of business, labor, and the environment. But this seems to be the task that the G-20 has taken on. G-20 leaders suggest that the best way to protect the Earth is through what they're calling "inclusive, green growth": growing the economy, providing jobs, and making sure reserves of natural capital are not depleted.

Yet, today's final G-20 declaration may have weak language, if any, on the sustainability of Earth's natural systems, in distinction to Earth's natural resources, from which growth and jobs may be created. 

Let's take a look at how the business and labor recommendations to the G-20 treat the role of Nature.


The B-20 is explicit about tying Nature to economic growth. Protecting the Earth is only possible, they argue, through expanding finance, trade, and markets, and by giving corporations the responsibility to protect natural resources.

A few highlights from the B-20 recommendations on "green growth":

  • US$ 32 trillion in global infrastructure investment needed by 2030; up to US$ 20 trillion of which could be directed to "green infrastructure" by 2020.
  • Removing tariffs and non-tariff-barriers could result in substantial trade gains, potentially >10%.
  • Carbon market flows to developing countries could rise to US$ 20 billion by 2020 (US$ 20-25 carbon price) and exceed US$ 100 billion with more ambitious mitigation targets (in line with 2 degree Celsius pathway).
  • Removing fossil-fuel subsidies would lower the cost of climate-change mitigation policies and save governments money. It would also help shift resources away from CO2-intensive sectors.
  • Energy efficiency across buildings, industry and residential sectors could cut a country’s energy use by 15% to 25%.


The L-20's interest is in making sure the "green economy" creates jobs. It notes: "greening economies can create decent jobs across developed, emerging and developing economies in a range of sectors including power generation, energy efficiency and retrofitting, public transportation and rural development.

A few highlights from the L-20 recommendations on "green growth":

  • Agree on launching a global initiative on employment, which will include the promotion of green jobs, with a special focus on young workers, in order to reach the goal of “Decent Work for All”. Progress in meeting this goal should be measured in terms of the reduction in unemployment, the elimination of working poverty and the share of green jobs created as a percentage of total job creation by 2030.
  • Agree on national 5-10 year plans that include targets for creating decent and green jobs and transforming existing jobs into decent and green jobs with accompanying decent work policies, through green investments of at least 2% of GDP.
  • Develop an ambitious mandate based on the Durban Platform as well as on UNFCCC core principles, aimed at providing a legally-binding architecture for the climate regime in order to limit the temperature increase to below 2°C, and consider reducing the target to 1.5°C.
  • Attain full implementation of the Green Climate Fund, including making the necessary resources available.
  • Ensure the implementation of previous commitments to ensure a Just Transition towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy in the work of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, and encourage joint UNFCCC-ILO work on the employment aspects of climate policies.

Who's Sticking Up for the World's Rivers?

Many of the recommendations above are progressive, practical ideas that could be implemented through coordinated political will. Yet, in the transition away from a fossil fuel economy, we must not forget about the natural systems in which a "green economy" would intervene.

Specifically, while there may be a consensus forming around a possible elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, there is a pervading interest in constructing large, centralized multipurpose dam projects for power generation. This is not an appropriate trade-off.  Large hydropower is an old technology which creates much greater and broader impacts on the regional environment than newer renewables, especially on freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.  

Large hydropower should be taken off the table. If it is not, paradoxically, Nature, and rivers, may lose out in the "green economy."