Rio+20: Justice must be reinstated at the centre in the quest for new green global economy

Dr Chukwumerije Okereke, Reader in Environment and Development and Director of Research in African Environment and Development in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, writes about the forthcoming Earth Summit and why justice must not be overlooked.

Between June 20 and 22 many world leaders, civil society groups and a bevy of media organisations will gather in Brazil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (Earth’s Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  3-14 June, 1992. The Rio Summit remains the largest ever global conference on environment and development convened by the United Nations.

The stated objective of Rio+20 is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development and assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development. The two themes for the conference are: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

There is no doubt that the 1992 Earth Summit 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 everyone of the need for a truly democratic platform for bringing together governments and civil society in the search for solutions to challenges that threaten humans’ common existence.

Rio 1992 produced three main agreements, including 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. Despite, however, many conventions and treaties related to sustainable development since 1992, the levels of global poverty and environmental degradation both remain unacceptably high.

It is right then that Rio+20 should focus on assessing the progress that has been made to date and the barriers standing against the achievement of global sustainable development.  As an ethical concept, the intuitive appeal of sustainable development resides in the attention it gives to three key dimensions of justice: (a) justice within and between nations; (b) justice between present and future generations; and (c) justice between human and non-human nature.

Today, distributional justice remains central to any effort to achieving sustainable development as it did 20 years ago. And only careful attention to the three dimensions of justice above can ensure the achievement of a lasting balance between economic, environmental and social dimensions of development which the concept of sustainable development envisages. In fact, I am convinced that the current 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.  In other words, Gro Harlem Bruntland was right when, in 1987, she declared that:  “It is futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality.”

Green Economy has emerged as the new buzzword in preparation for Rio +20. However it must be noted that emphasis on ‘green economy’ does nothing to affect the centrality of distributional justice in the quest for sustainability.  There will certainly be winners and losers in the transition to a global greener 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 June 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 such a transition would generate. In discussing this matter I suggest that lasting answers can only be achieved in Rio if the following four 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. The idea of global environmental/planetary citizenship should not been seen as mere moral lectures but one that deserves to be taken as the foundation upon which institutions for environmental governance should be built
  4. The current global economic recession should be seen as an opportunity (not as a hindrance) to tackling unsustainable development and world poverty.

To stand any chance of meeting the aspirations of the 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 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

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  1. Daniel’s avatar

    I like your article….

    If there is a measure of poverty in every nation, then the earth remains a common place, with common inheritance for good practice exchange.
    Will proper inventory of the earth’s resources and the sharing of reasonable value systems help accountability? Who will judge this?

  2. Chukwumerije’s avatar

    Thank you Daniel. These are excellent comments are questions. Despite the current economic crisis we are in the most prosperous era in human history. The problem now is not so much about inadequate production or lack of food but inequality and poor distribution of what is produced. In Europe for example, farmers are paid large sums of money by governments NOT to produce and millions of tons of various food produce – from eggs to bread – are destroyed everyday to keep prices superficially high. So yes, we need proper inventory and accountability based on better value system. Yes, there is a problem of who will judge this because the very people (countries and businesses) that are benefiting most from the current unjust system are the same people that have the power to set rules at the international level. Hence political power and injustice are deeply entangled. We must move towards some sort of global democracy to be be able to counter these forces and abiding inequitable structures.

    Again, thank you Daniel for your comments and questions.

  3. Obinna’s avatar

    Nice piece Chuks!

    Distributional justice, environmental justice, environmental citizenship … good points from global perspective and discourse…

    However, from the perspective of the poor in developing countries with no social justice, no civil justice, no sense of real citizenship etc, how will these environmental concerns gain traction?

    The devastating effects of tangible environmental degradation ranging from air pollution, oil spillage, soil erosion, solid waste management in Sub-Saharan Africa (as an example) are never major talking points in elections and thus, not being adequately addressed. If these tangible environmental issues are not receiving media and political attention, the challenges of distributional and environmental justice in the region can be put in a better perspective.

  4. Chukwumerije’s avatar


    Thanks for your comments, which are insightful. I agree that many developing countries who are pressing for distributional justice at the global level do not pay attention to issues of justice at the national level. The question though is whether international injustice should be condoned on the ground that justice is lacking within these countries. I think the answer should be NOT. Moreover, we should not forget there is close connection between global injustice and inequality within nations. There is a connection between the low cost of coffee in the US streets and poverty in Ethiopia. There is relationship between the low cost of cotton in Europe and poverty in Mali. There is relationship between US and Europe energy policies and environmental degradation in Niger Delta, Nigeria. So in end questions of poverty, oil spillage and air pollution etc in developing countries are not divorced from questions of greater justice globally.

  5. Obinna’s avatar

    Thanks Chuks for explaining the interconnection between global resource demand and impact at the local level. But greater justice globally does not necessarily mean greater local justice especially when the fundamental elements of justice are non-existence in the developing nation and when the status quo is in favor of the developed countries (economically).

    The threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power has forced West to sanction Iranian oil export (effective sometime in June), but the deaths and devastating impact of oil pollution in Niger Delta, have not received any reasonable international (State) sanction on Nigerian oil export.

    Greater global environmental justice will thus be more effective only if the West will exhibit stronger moral character at the expense of economic interest distributional justice. Whether the global environmental movement can force this to happen remains to be seen.

  6. Max’s avatar

    This is very eloquent, and well-argued. Thanks for adding your perspective and insights to these important issues.
    Cheers, max

  7. Richard’s avatar


    Is the concept of distributional justice enshrined in any international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other human rights treaties? This would seem an obvious vehicle for promoting the need for sustainable development and relates well to points (a) and (b) in your article, although human rights wouldn’t give protection to non-human nature.

  8. Chuks’s avatar

    @Obinna: I am glad we you make those points. You are absolutely right that economic interest of Western governments and their multinational agents is the main hindrance to distributive justice – economic and environmental – at the international level. As I said before, while the state of injustice within many developing countries is not to be ignored, it is apparent that there is a connection between global inequity and injustice at the national levels.

    @Richard: There is a corpus of declarations but no single international treaty on distributional justice. It is very unlikely that the West would ever allow such a treaty to be negotiated. One example was a treaty on compensation for damage caused by climate change which was flatly rejected by the US. However developing countries do have, in many existing declarations (Climate Change treaty, WTO, Law of the Sea, Biodiversity Convention, Waste Trade Regime, etc) plenty of legal tools to press a case for greater global environmental and economic justice.

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