Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Green growth: time to stop ducking the trade-offs and difficult decisions


Two contrasting media articles published over the last few weeks illustrate the on-going confusion about what we should want from international development and the supposed silver bullet ‘Green Growth’ (usually defined as patterns of growth which are both environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive).  The first, published in the New York Times, talks about how growth has failed in Paraguay because many people still make a living from picking through waste dumps for recyclable items. While the second, published by the Inter Press Service, explores how economic growth has failed in India because many ragpickers are out of a job due to waste now being managed by private corporations.

So do we want people picking through waste or not?

Recycling waste is surely to be applauded in the context of green growth. If we’re looking for inclusive solutions that protect livelihoods and create economic opportunities for the poorest people in society, then informal systems may have some advantages. Yet in a developed country context it is unthinkable that we would prefer an informal solution of ragpickers to formal waste management.

These stories highlight just one small example of the huge questions and trade-offs being faced in relation to development today, and raise much deeper questions about the causes of inequality and poverty, the merits of different models of growth, and the role of the private sector.  A recent paper published by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) – to be discussed at a joint ODI/CDKN event tomorrow – starts to unpick these issues, and suggests some possible solutions.

The unpalatable truth is that growth and development is transformative; in other words, it changes the pattern of economic opportunities in a country, and some poor people’s basic livelihoods may be destroyed in the process.  Of course, in the longer term, this growth and development should generate much better employment opportunities for those people, but this could take a very long time.  So how should these social costs be handled in the short term?

Then there are the environmental trade-offs. In the Indian story waste is being used to create energy through incineration, in a project funded in part by the Clean Development Mechanism for its contribution to low carbon growth.  Yet incineration destroys some otherwise recyclable materials, and can also create local pollution problems – so is this really the greenest solution? And of course the reporter also takes the opportunity to put the boot in on private companies – as is so commonly the case in development debates, despite the fact that it is business that drives the economic growth that is crucial to underpin development.

These two articles mirror the widespread confusion about what ‘Green Growth’ actually looks like.  The development community really needs to get its collective head around the issues, and come up with approaches that don’t duck the trade-offs and difficult decisions that policy-makers in the developing world face every day, but rather help to measure and inform them. CDKN doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but this latest paper and forthcoming event represent a first step, aiming to set out some of the drivers, challenges and trade-offs that policy-makers must navigate in order to achieve green growth, suggesting some possible solutions,  and setting an agenda for much needed further research.