Chukwumerije Okereke, University of Reading
There is no doubt that the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 was a critical landmark in the history of global environmental governance. It continues to: (i) serve as an inspiration for humane international co-operation and multilateral environmental diplomacy;
(ii) provide impetus for the quest for an ecologically secure and sustainable planet; and (iii) remind us of the need for a truly democratic platform for bringing together governments and civil society in the search for solutions to things that threaten our common existence.
The three main agreements that came out of Rio 1992 were the UN Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Biodiversity and the Forest Principles. However, important as these three treaties are, it is probably fair to suggest that the most important outcome of Rio 1992 was the institutionalisation of the concept of sustainable development - the recognition that environmental protection and human welfare are inseparable parts of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation.
As an ethical concept, the intuitive appeal of sustainable development resides in the attention it gives to three key dimensions of justice: (a) justice between and across nations and political jurisdictions; (b) justice between present and future generations; and (c) justice between human and non-human nature.
Today, it remains the case that only careful attention to these three dimensions of justice can ensure the achievement of a lasting balance between economic, environmental and social dimensions of development which the concept of sustainable development envisages.
I have no doubt that the lack of attention to justice is the most important barrier against the design of effective policies and institutions for achieving national and global sustainable development. Inequity remains the greatest obstacle to sustainable development. As Gro Harlem Bruntland, said in 1987, “it is futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality".
With COP17 concluded and attention turned towards Rio+20, the question that should be asked is what progress has been made in achieving these three dimensions of justice embodied in the concept of sustainable development. Here, it is important to note that the emphasis on “green economy” - one of the key themes of Rio+20 does nothing to vitiate the centrality of distributional justice in the quest for sustainability. There will certainly be winners and losers in transitions to a greener technology and economy, at least in the short term. Moreover, the move to a green economy would itself entail material costs, and green products and services may generate their own externalities and risks. States, businesses and the civil society gathering in Rio in 2012 must therefore ask how policies and institutions aimed at encouraging a greener economy can better take account of the full range of justice impacts and prospects that such a transition would generate.
My view is that lasting answers to this question can only be achieved in Rio if the three following perspectives are adopted:
1. Distributional justice should not be seen as merely instrumental but at the heart of sustainable development.
2. Questions of environmental justice must be seen as questions about the mode of wealth creation and appropriation itself rather than as an add-on optional extra. Hence, achieving global sustainable development should be seen to require more radical interrogations of the basic structure of the international society and of patterns of social relations between the poor and rich.
3. Given our equal and common dependence on one single natural system, the idea of global environmental/planetary citizenship should not be seen as a mere preachment but one that deserves to be taken as the foundation upon which institutions for environmental governance should be built. To stand any chance of meeting the aspirations of majority of the global population that has been clamouring for global sustainable development, international management approaches must strive harder to reflect responsible stewardship and the fact of our common inheritance and ownership of the planetary resources. In short for Rio to succeed, the idea of justice must be reinstated at the centre in the quest for new green global economy.
Reader in Environment and Development
Director of Research in African Environment and Development
School of Human and Environmental Sciences
University of Reading, UK