How do we distribute responsibility for our planet evenly? Between North and South? Within nations? A brief history of environmental justice.
It's an image that made history. A photo, shot from space, shows the sunlit Earth, swirling with patches of cloud, yet with clearly visible oceans and continents. There it is, the one and only Earth, the home of all of us. The image of the blue planet, brought back by a lunar expedition, triggered the American and later worldwide environmental movement. 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day in 1970, and in 1972 the image graced the worldwide bestseller Limits to Growth and inspired the logo of the United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm.
Yet the photo distorts our perception. No people, cultures or societies are visible. It launched the narrative of numerous environmental reports in which we – humanity – stand opposite the planet. But who are "we"? It's not surprising that the question of justice did not play a role in the 1970s – neither the gulf that separates southern and northern countries, nor the rights of existence of people who live directly from nature. At best, there were the mere beginnings of generational justice along the lines of "We have only borrowed the Earth from our children" – in retrospect, a colossal failure.
In contrast, Indira Gandhi's speech in Stockholm – in which she noted that poverty is the greatest polluter – still resonates today. At that point it became impossible to ignore the sore spot of environmental policy – and with it the question of international justice: the North-South divide. It was not to be resolved until the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which apply to all nations; the model of catch-up development was quietly laid to rest. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the environment and development were still at odds. The North wanted environmental protection, the South wanted development.
The conflict was defused by a new principle in international environmental law: common but differentiated responsibilities – the proverbial Egg of Columbus! According to the principle, all countries are responsible for global environmental degradation, but by no means equally. Developed countries thus committed to taking the first steps, such as reducing emissions, while also raising the funds to offset losses in poorer countries. The tug-of-war over this continues to this day, especially in the conferences following the Framework Convention on Climate Change. A similar ongoing dispute exists in the negotiations for the Convention on Biological Diversity, according to which the benefits arising from the use of biogenetic resources are to be shared equitably, both between nations and within each nation. To be able to designate extensive protected areas, the South, with its rich biodiversity, is dependent on the financial redistribution of the North, which for its part has already largely destroyed the diversity of life.
The definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundlandt Commission in 1987 did not help much at the time either. While it emphasized intergenerational justice, intragenerational justice fell by the wayside. Whose, and which, needs should be satisfied? Should sustainable development meet the need for water, land and economic security or the desire for air travel and bank deposits? Should it cater to survival needs or luxury desires? The world's economic divide clearly continues in the ecological one. The ecological footprint increases with wealth and vice versa.
The wealthy half of the world's population accounts for 88 percent of greenhouse gas emissions
In 2019, the wealthy half of the world’s population, i.e. the upper and middle classes of North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, caused a whopping 88 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the other half – the have-nots – were responsible for just 12 percent. What a gigantic difference! Consumption and investment activities by the richest 10 percent alone account for just under half of global emissions, leaving the other half for the remaining 90 percent of the world's population. In any case, the North-South divide between states has survived; with the rise of the emerging economies at the latest, this disunion has also become evident within nations.
Below the diplomatic level, civil society has been calling for environmental justice since the late 1970s. For example, non-white communities in the United States protested discrimination due to higher pollution levels; in northern India, numerous women of the Chipko movement hugged trees to protect them from commercial logging. Later low points were the murders of Chico Mendes by large landowners in the Amazon region in 1988 and of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria for resisting the Shell oil company in 1995. Environmentalists, especially in the global South, continue to live dangerously: 228 murders were recorded in 2020, many in South America.
Numerous movements have adopted environmental justice as their rallying cry. Just take La Via Campesina, an organization founded in 1992 that is popular in 80 countries among smallholders, farm workers and fishermen who demand food sovereignty and agroecology. Or the animal rights movement that emerged in the 1980s that advocates respect for the rights of animals and rejects factory farming. Finally, the climate justice movement: its slogan "System Change not Climate Change" (2007, Bali climate conference) has shed light on the systemic causes of the global inequality that comes with climate change – and thus on the modern industrial era, be it under a capitalist or socialist system. Fridays for Future, Ende Gelände and Extinction Rebellion are the heirs of this movement. Previously, the World Council of Churches had campaigned for environmental justice in the 1990s, and the Catholic Church followed suit in 2015 with the encyclical Laudato sí. Recently, the Just Transition initiative, launched by the trade unions, has been campaigning for jobs in the course of the restructuring toward a sustainable economy.
The livelihoods of one third of the world's population depend on direct access to nature
Last but not least, environmental justice has a legal significance. At birth, all human beings acquire a fundamental right to live on a hospitable planet. That is the essence of human rights. One third of the world's population depends on direct access to nature for their livelihoods. It obtains food, clothing, housing, medicine and also culture directly from local natural areas. Because savannas, forests, water, farmland and also fish, birds or cattle are essential means of subsistence for these groups, their right to exist depends on the flourishing of these ecosystems. Droughts and hurricanes caused by global warming therefore have a human rights dimension, as does the exploitation of resources – such as deforestation and overfishing, as well as the 17,000 mines and 50,000 dams (over 15m) worldwide – for the benefit of affluent city-dwellers. Time and again, the natural habitats of the poor are targeted by the international resource economy.
Thanks to the transnational networking of indigenous peoples, it was possible to push through the 2007 declaration of the United Nations that promised them justice over their territories. In addition, the United Nations created the role of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment in 2012 which also led to success: at the end of 2021 the human right to a healthy environment was officially recognized. Certainly, the proof is in the enforcement, but at least misconduct against climate and biodiversity can now be legally prosecuted. Last year, for example, a Dutch court ordered oil giant Shell to pay reparations to Nigerian farmers who had lost their homes and farms to pipeline leaks. The groundbreaking decision of the German Constitutional Court, according to which the German government had not given sufficient consideration to the civil liberties of future generations, also belongs in this line of legal actions that are currently accumulating worldwide.
To come back to the image of the blue planet: its symbolic power will only be fulfilled if the people on the globe are bound together by rules of international law. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is to be feared that the world order will no longer be governed by a multilateral set of rules, no matter how asymmetrical, but by a few power centers that do not shy away from violence. "Might is right" would take precedence over legal frameworks. This bodes ill for the unity of humanity, the symbol of which is indeed the photo of the blue planet.
Wolfgang Sachs is a freelance author and a former university lecturer and head of research at the Wuppertal Institute, a think tank for climate, environment and energy issues.
This is a translation of a text first published in the magazine Böll.Thema 50 years of international environmental policy.