Countries, companies and cities need to establish environmental justice targets to counter the impact of the climate and other crises on global inequality, according to the authors of the most comprehensive study of the issue to date.
From floods in Pakistan to air pollution in India, the Earth Commission researchers say the poorest parts of the world are being disproportionately harmed by environmental problems, which is adding to global injustice and threatening social stability.
To counter this, they propose the creation of environmental justice targets similar to those submitted by governments on reaching the Paris agreement goal of limiting global heating to between 1.5C and 2C.
Their plan, which was outlined at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, is billed as the first attempt to factor justice into an assessment of the state of the planet. It is based on a three-year Earth Commission study that brings together dozens of the world’s leading nature scientists and social scientists to understand Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and the role humans play as guardians. Their findings and recommendations will be published over the coming months.
“Planetary stability is not possible without a justice approach,” said Joyeeta Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, who is one of the lead authors. “It took a long time to persuade the nature scientists.”
She said the concept of justice needed to be applied between generations and species, as well as within the current human population. It should minimise harm and define minimum levels of access to food, water, energy and infrastructure.
Her co-chair of the study, Johan Rockström, said the inclusion of social science was the next step in his work to define a safe operating space for humanity. Previously, he led teams that defined a range of planetary boundaries, including for climate, land system change, freshwater use, chemical pollution, ocean acidification and biodiversity. With the new study, he is collaborating with social scientists to map where just boundaries are different from safe boundaries.
The initial papers are expected to launch a debate about the fairest as well as the safest way to use the planet’s remaining space for development. Or in the cases where boundaries have already been crossed, to minimise impacts. Some of the proposed measures can be applied immediately, the authors said, such as ensuring every square kilometre in cities has a minimum area of green space.
In future, the Earth Commission will examine whether there are social tipping points that can lead to rapid collapse. “This is an area of active research right now,” Rockström said. “We need to ask what is the point when social systems break rather than continuously coping. My personal assessment is the first social system that is breaking may be small-scale farming. We’ve already see signs of that among farmers in Tanzania who have abandoned cultivating because the rains are so delayed. It is not gradual, they just give up and abandon the whole operation.”