A Green Economy Takes Root in Rio de Janeiro

As the site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Brazil will be hosting an enormous number of international tourists over the next few years. But another event of global importance looms on the nation’s horizon even sooner. Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, is scheduled to take place in June of 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.

With just over a year to go, Brazil, and the state of Rio de Janeiro in particular (both the state and its iconic coastal city carry the same name) are intent on presenting a Brazil serious about sustainable development.

To bring this goal to fruition, the Rio state government created a department devoted to Green Economics in January of this year. Though still quite young, the department’s small staff is already working doggedly to bring many sectors of state and national government into the fold to promote collaboration in planning for and implementing initiatives to further green economic strategies and bolster the number of “green-collar” jobs.

According to Suzana Kahn, who heads the Green Economy secretariat of Rio, the creation of the department came from “the urgent need to conciliate the concepts of economic growth with sustainability and environmental protection, which are still largely seen as incompatible.”

With Rio in the world’s limelight due to forthcoming athletic events and due to its booming economy, the timing couldn’t be riper with opportunity to launch these progressive initiatives.

Among the department’s programmatic priorities are sustainable construction, electricity, agriculture, finance, tourism and water. But to make their goals even more ambitious, the department is attempting to implement projects at the same time as it pushes the very definitions of green economics and sustainable development. Green GDP and green jobs, financial flows, using market mechanisms to solve environmental issues, and creating incentives with fiscal and tributary tools are all part of their innovative vision.

With a statewide climate change policy already in place, the department is hoping to build a low-carbon economy by attracting domestic and international funders. They hope both public and private financers will invest in green businesses and sustainable infrastructure. Employing low-income Cariocas (or citizens of Rio) to lay rubber asphalt, start urban agriculture projects, work on new public housing projects using green building practices, and reforestation initiatives will be among their first projects.

Though they hope to be viewed as innovators, the Rio Green Economy’s staff knows they must learn carefully from international success stories, such as in San Francisco, London and parts of China. International exchanges will be a main priority of the department as their work develops, and the Rio+20 Conference will provide an opportunity to build connections and share examples among international delegates.

With many more tools to implement sustainability initiatives than the world had at its fingertips twenty years ago, Rio+20 has the potential to act as a sort of salon for the leading minds in green development. The original Earth Summit took place in 1992 in Rio, and that conference helped plant the ‘seed’ of green economics in the collective, says the Superintendent of Green Economy, Walter Figueiredo De Simoni, but today “the concepts of development, growth and production all come with an implicit need for sustainability, efficient use of resources, and responsibility.” “The ‘tone’ of environmental discussions,” he says, “are now irrevocably intertwined with an economic discussion. Our objective is to show the world a working model of a green economy.”

Though the department realizes that having such a system up and running in full by next summer is unrealistic, they hope to provide the framework for this paradigm shift and demonstrate, through nascent pilot projects, that their goals are, in fact, in the works tangibly, and transcend hackneyed sustainable development rhetoric.

Visitors to Rio de Janeiro the city may imagine the success of such a program to be a long-shot. Public transportation is shoddy, car culture is thriving, and the recycling program has, for many years, been run by a community of trash-pickers who live and work in Jardim Gramacho (recently profiled in the Academy-nominated film Waste Land).

The world has watched as stunning Guanabara Bay has been dotted with oil rigs and a nuclear reactor sits on the picturesque bay in Angra, a major tourist destination and part of a fragile and important coastal ecosystem. On the social front, poverty is widespread and the divide between Rio’s rich and poor is one of the widest and most startlingly visible in the world. And in Rio’s countryside, rural areas that once were home to strong community-based agricultural enterprises are losing their populations to urbanization and their local economies to agribusinesses.

Some might argue that there are more urgent issues at hand than working to impress the global leaders in sustainability. But the Green Economy staff insists that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between environment, sustainability and growth, and they aim begin proving their point come next June.

Brazil, a country that was until recently considered third world is now one of the wealthiest on the planet — one of the few nations to not only weather, but to prosper during, the recession following the economic crash in 2008. Yet as Brazil nears the rank of global superpower, it, like its fellow developing nations, faces tremendous internal pressure to deal with the complexities of rapid growth and urbanization. Though the nation is proud of its somewhat sudden lurch into the developed world, there is real concern about the use of its natural riches, and a hope that all its citizens can be carried upwards by the tide of development.

Though skeptics may sneer, we have yet to form a comparable department here in the U.S. Perhaps, then, the state of Rio de Janeiro is on to something. Can Brazil come into its own as a global power without leaving a trail of destruction, inequality and irreversible environmental damage in its wake? As the world watches, only time will tell.