“Green economy”: an ambiguous concept that is on the way out

The "green economy" has at least three different definitions. © iStock

The "green economy" has at least three different definitions. © iStock

Concerns about climate change have given rise to a whole series of concepts that are widely used despite their lack of a concrete definition. EPFL researchers have taken a closer look at the “green economy” concept in particular to clarify exactly what it means.

Today’s consumers want a cleaner, greener society. There are a number of concepts out there addressing this goal, such as green economy, green growth, sustainable development, bioeconomy and circular economy. These terms have even been adopted by non-profit organizations, lobbies and international organizations for use in their names and initiatives. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all clear on exactly what these concepts mean. At least that’s according to a recent study carried out at EPFL. The research, published this month in Journal of Cleaner Production, looked specifically at the concept of the green economy. Scientists compared 140 definitions found in journal articles (117) and white papers (23) published over the past ten years. 95 of these definitions were of “green economy” and 45 of “green growth,” a similar term that is often used as a synonym.

The concept of a green economy first appeared in the scientific literature in the 1990s but didn’t really gain traction until 2008 – in the wake of the global financial crisis – especially in political and academic circles. The United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were also major drivers of this trend. “The number of journal articles published on this topic every year went from zero in 2008 to 200 in 2018,” says Albert Merino-Saum, the study’s lead author and a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory for Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS). But the problem is that each article has its own definition of what the green economy is. While everyone seems to agree that a green economy is based on various social, economic and technological factors, the way each one is described and the importance given to each one can vary from one study to the next.

“We were surprised to see that all these articles were being published without referring to a seminal study or benchmark paper giving a clear definition of ‘green economy.’ That’s highly unusual for scientific research, where people first try to establish a common conceptual basis. So in our study we aimed to clarify the term and thereby help policymakers evaluate different options in view of the consequences,” says Merino-Saum.

Three conceptual families
The first step was to establish a framework of around 40 conceptual elements for evaluating the 140 definitions. The scientists found that the definitions could be grouped into three main families. The first is what they call “econocentric,” or focused on economic factors like trade and finance to achieve environmental and social goals. “This family is closest to the idea of ‘green growth,’ except that discussions of green growth generally don’t account for the fact that natural resources are limited,” says Merino-Saum. The second family focuses more heavily on human well-being. Here the emphasis is on reducing inequality in the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources. The third family sees science and technology as a solution for environmental problems and a vector for sustainable economic growth. “Going forward, we’d like to see journal articles start by stating which ‘green economy’ conceptual family they are referring to,” says Merino-Saum.

An idea on its way out?
But that assumes that the green economy concept is here to stay. Some people think it’s merely a fad that will soon go out of fashion. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of articles about the ‘circular economy.’ From 2008 to 2018, the number of these articles has swelled from zero per year to 800, with a sharp rise in 2015,” says Merino-Saum. This surge could be due in part to reports issued by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has become a thought leader on the topic, and to the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan. Merino-Saum believes that the green economy concept will only last if researchers make a clear distinction between it and its cousin, sustainable development – such as the fact that the former is more practice-oriented. One sign that ‘green economy’ could be on the way out is its rejection by the UN, which, in its 2030 Agenda, talks about 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The irony isn’t lost on Merino-Saum that the terms coming in and out of fashion relate to sustainability. “Of course, some of the terms are only used for green washing,” he says bluntly, “but most of them are genuinely intended to spur a transition to a more sustainable society.” According to Merino-Saum, the keys are: using the right indicators to measure how effectively concepts are being implemented, and adapting implementation to the actual conditions in a given situation. For instance, priorities like access to water, water quality and access to healthcare can differ from one country – or region – to the next. Now that this study is finished, Merino-Saum and his team plan to dissect some other concepts. Next up? ‘Smart cities’ and ‘urban sustainability.’