Tensions and Complementarities between the Green and Brown Agendas

Tensions clearly do exist between the brown agenda and the wider green movement. Indeed, it was partly due to a perceived neglect of local urban environmental issues by green organizations that urban development authors and practitioners started using the term brown agenda. However, solutions to brown agenda problems can be problematic from a green perspective – it is sometimes the case that when a city begins to cope more effectively with brown issues, the knock on effects can be damaging to the wider regional or global environment. For example, if a city manages to create a functional waterborne sewage system, thereby massively reducing the exposure of its residents to fecal matter and biological pathogens, sewage might not be treated properly before being discharged into bodies of water in the wider region. Even when this is not the case, waterborne sewerage escalates water use demands dramatically, increasing a city’s ecological footprint. In other words, solving a brown problem is not necessarily a step in the direction of solving a green one and rigidly separating the two agendas or dealing with the issues of one without paying adequate attention to the other, can be counterproductive.

Recently, the tension has been framed as one between ‘green’ environmental concerns on the one hand, and ‘brown’ issues emerging from economic development pressures on the other. In some ways this is useful, serving as a reminder of the fact that brown issues are in fact fundamentally development issues that would previously have been referred to in the language of growth, poverty reduction, and addressing basic needs. In this context, the common green assertion that economic growth is overvalued and environmentally detrimental is not particularly helpful – there is no denying that many brown problems are perpetuated not by rapid economic growth but by chronic underinvestment and persistent poverty in a city. In many ways, brown agenda issues reflect the hazards of underdevelopment, while green issues reflect the opposite, a level of development bloated by high level mass consumption. However, to simplistically interpret brown issues in relation to development and green issues to environment is to undermine some of the positive achievements of creating a brown agenda in the first place and of linking development and the environment. The brown agenda serves to highlight the fact that the most pressing environmental problems facing people across the world are not global but local in their impact, especially as they affect poor people living and working in cities.

It is, in part, in recognition of the interrelation of the two agendas that the idea of sustainable development has become so significant. The sustainable development approach is in many respects an attempt to reconcile the two agendas, aimed at ensuring that meeting urban demands for resources does not cause irreversible harm to ecosystems on both the local and global level. In other words, and as laid out by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the goal of sustainable development is to meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs. The challenge for those concerned with developing countries is that the ‘sustainability’ element of the contemporary environmental discourse does not eclipse a focus on poverty reduction and basic needs. Here, it is interesting to observe a few of the ways in which the current high profile of certain green problems can interact with the brown agenda.

The 2006 Stern Review Report on the economics of climate change provides a few interesting examples of how a now highly salient global green issue is also of relevance to the brown agenda. First, it notes the ways in which global climate change could exacerbate brown problems, for example, by having a disastrous impact on water availability in many regions, with areas that are already dry likely to experience further decreases in water availability. This is, according to the Stern Report, likely to change the water status of billions of people with the result that considerably more will need to done on top of current efforts to meet people’s demand for water. Furthermore, in other parts of the world, melting glaciers and mountain snow, as well as rising sea levels, will increase flood risk, and floods very often conspire with brown issues of poor sanitation, drainage, and solid waste management to spread disease rapidly among dense urban populations. Similarly, the effect of heat waves in cities will be very dangerous, leading not only to extreme temperatures but to more dangerous air pollution incidents and the spread of vector borne diseases; the report highlights the likelihood of a particularly severe impact on urban slums in this regard.

Also evident in the report, is the extent to which brown issues in the developing world are contributing to climate change itself, despite the relatively low levels of industrialization and comparatively high emissions of the industrialized North. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that there are currently 2.5 billion people using traditional biomass for cooking and heating, while in developing economies there are strong pressures to expand energy supplies as quickly as possible. This has been especially apparent in China, where power companies have rapidly been investing in new coal fired power stations, and where 16 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are located. On the positive side, China has established a goal to reduce energy intensity between 2006 and 2010; the Indian Ministry of Power is working to remove market barriers to low carbon home cooking systems and Mexico City has removed carbon intensive oil plants and replaced them with high efficiency gas turbines.

What is noticeable about many of these efforts is that, while they have an impact on global climate change, solutions are often left to municipalities to initiate rather than national authorities. Municipalities in turn are motivated as much if not more by local and brown concerns as by the global green agenda. As the Stern Report reminds us, the fact that many developing countries are already making efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the long term is often a result of their awareness of local co benefits. The basic needs of the urban poor and even the urban environment are far from a central focus of theStern Report. The term ‘brown agenda’ does not even appear once in its 600 odd pages. However, the analysis demonstrates how futile it is to try and separate brown and green agenda issues, whether in terms of causes of environmental problems at all levels, their local impact, and in relation to the means of addressing them.

Conclusion: Dichotomy or Continuum?

The brown agenda elucidates urban environmental problems that are often sidelined by the green movement and this is welcome. Yet, it is clear that, in many cases, they positively interact and it is misleading to separate the two. The notion of a city’s ecological footprint is important, whereby people outside cities sometimes suffer even more from the impact of the activities of a city than city dwellers themselves. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) consider urban environmental burdens to arise at three main scales: those that have an immediate impact around the home and workplace, those that have wider impacts in and around urban centers, and those that are global but largely caused by urban activities. In this respect, the brown and green agendas do not give rise to a clear dichotomy but form part of a continuum. Acknowledging this, the way the brown agenda codifies a particular set of issues, nevertheless, serves one valuable purpose, that is, to clearly point up and demarcate issues that affect cities in the poorest parts of the world – inadequate water supply and poor sanitation – whether or not they have much effect on anyone else or the global green agenda. It is important to see and tackle environmental and development problems holistically; but if the two agendas are too closely merged, the issues that will dominate will be those of obvious global concern, and those that threaten the more powerful industrialized North.

In sum, the brown agenda might best be thought of as an expression of the most basic and essential environmental problems. As such, it should perhaps underwrite all efforts towards environmental improvement on any scale; the notion of a brown agenda exists to vocalize those elements of a broader environmental agenda that in an increasingly urbanized world, affect a disproportionate number of people daily. As it is, the brown agenda is often spoken of only in a whisper. The challenge remains to turn up the volume and to make the transition from ‘green’ politics that sometimes favor the special interests of the better off to a genuine form of environmental justice that gives voice to the urban poor.