UMass Amherst Department of Political Science

Featured Article - January/February 2012

How Can we Promote a Sustainable World?

by Peter Haas


My research and teaching are driven by the question of how we can promote a sustainable world.  Sustainability is a matter of resilience – anticipating problems, formulating reasoned and feasible solutions, and implementing them.  In our globalized world this requires a number of things which we study as political scientists.

  • International Cooperation
  • National will
  • Delegation to expertise
  • Enforcement
  • Legitimacy

I have been particularly interested in international environmental conferences.  My interest in international environmental politics was sparked by a summer research assistantship I had in 1975, studying the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The field of international environmental politics scarcely existed, then.  I attended the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and am planning to attend the 2012 Rio Plus 20 Conference, to be held on 4-6 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio Plus 20 is being described within UN circles as the last policy opportunity to promote a “green economy”, and for institutional reform of the UN system.  Unless sudden corrections are taken, we are likely to lose this opportunity. The political climate does not seem favorably disposed towards supporting the ambitious goals of advancing a “green economy” as provisionally laid out in the Conference agenda.

While the dimensions of a “green economy” remain hazy, it is clear that promoting green technologies and innovation in order to rapidly transition to a carbon neutral  resource efficient and low polluting economy that is capable of generating jobs is a mammoth undertaking. 

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2009 suggests that a 14% reduction in energy consumption from 2012 Kyoto limits is needed by 2030 to keep atmospheric carbon concentrations at 450 ppm. A 450 ppm goal may be technically feasible with existing technologies, albeit at a high cost.  . More ambitious green goals are not yet feasible with available technologies, and we still need a massive innovation push to create these green technologies. Informed estimates of the cost of transitioning to renewable energy over the next 20 years vary from 10 to 30 trillion US dollars. Such costs might decline over time as markets expand and production becomes cheaper.

Lessons from the past are not comforting.

Prior successful large scale international environemtnal conferences – such as the 1972 and 1992 conferences  - enjoyed public support, a well-developed agenda with deliverable treaties and policy proposals, and the absence of major power political cleavages. 

Past successful technological transformations akin to the green economy – such as the Industrial Revolution in early 19th century England, the spread of free trade in the 1870s, and the reconstruction of Europe and the world economy in the aftermath of World War II – rested on a widely shared common purpose, political support by a transnational network of influential actors, and strong treaty obligations and international organizations capable of coordinating national policies. 

None of these political preconditions for success appear to be present yet for Rio Plus 20. Governments and publics are preoccupied by the Arab Spring, restoring financial health, the war in Afghanistan, and terrorism.

Many political problems threaten a successful conference.

  • The ‘green economy’ concept remains contested. Beyond the problem of defining a ‘green economy ‘, countries will compete over access to the commanding heights of the new economy, and thus are divided on their anticipated benefits from it.  Some governments support the green economy approach, anticipating that their economies may benefit from a new epoch of green technology:  including Japan, S. Korea, Germany, China, and possibly Brazil. Others are ambivalent – such as the USA and Russia – in large part because of the divided nature of their industrial sector which continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels and on manufacturing products for the older technology.  Still others, including many in the developing world, are fearful that new technologies will be more competitive than their exports, that they may not enjoy cheap access to the new technologies, and that they may not contribute to job creation in their societies.
  • Green markets are still immature. The various green sectors remain too small in their respective countries to be able to command significant political clout. 
  • International institutions, and in particular the envisioned reforms so far discussed in the Rio Plus 20 preparatory process are insufficiently bold to be able to sway governments to change their dominant economic policy paradigms.
  • The Conference agenda is disjointed; where the envisioned reforms of the UN system are not closely related to the goal of promoting a green economy.


The Conference planners are thus faced with a dilemma, and few realistic options. The dilemma is that bold action requires more political support than is presently available. The challenge is how, with less than a year, and realistically more like 8 months, can sufficient political support be created to induce governmental support for developing a serious roadmap for a green economy? 

What options are available to claim a success at the conference?  One option of course is to recognize bleak political realities, and delay the conference until the political climate appears more felicitous. Another option is to try to change those realities by broadening the constituency for the conference, through efforts to mobilize green sectors worldwide and to actively involve the financial planning ministries of the major governments.  A third option is to plan for the day after the conference, and develop conference outputs that will continue to advance the longer process towards Sustainable Development and a green economy from June 7th, largely through a carefully designed declaration of goals.

Further readings: 

Haas, P. (2002). "UN Conferences and Constructivist Governance of the Environment." Global Governance 8(1): 73-91.

Haas, P. M., M. A. Levy, et al. (1992). "How Should We Judge UNCED's Success?" Environment 34(8): 6-11, 26-33.

Kerr, R. A. (2010). "Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition?" Science 329: 780-781.

Nelson, R. R. (2005). Technology Institutions and Economic Growth. Cambidge, Harvard University Press.

Pacala, S. and R. Socolow (2004). "Stabilization Wedges." Science 305(5698): 968-972.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The Great Transformation. New York, Farrar & Rinehart.

Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York, Harper and Row.

Weizsacker, E. v., K. Hargroves, et al. (2009). Factor Five:  Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity. London, Earthscan.



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