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Equi ty refe rs to the distribution of wealth or power and is closely related to notions of justice, fairness, and equality. The concept permeates several disciplines of social thought, including prominent roles in economics, geography, and political philosophy. Equity concerns have become inextricably bound to environmental quality. This intrinsic relationship between equity and the environment takes many forms across space and at different scales, yielding the paired concept of environmental equity.
Empirical trends in world economic development, such as uneven resource exploitation and disparate vulnerability to environmental harms, underscore the prevalence of environmental inequities among nations, economic classes, and cultural groups. These inequities have coalesced into at least three interrelated topics pursued by environmental equity activists and scholars: environmental justice, natural resource access, and intergenerational equity.
Environmental justice exposes inequalities in the incidence of environmental harms across differences in race, gender, economic class, or national economic development. The disposal of toxic and hazardous waste near areas inhabited by racial minorities in the United States sparked an environmental justice movement that has become embedded in local, national, and international environmental politics. Global climate change provides a vivid and complex example of the environmental equity and justice notions that shape contemporary policy debates. In the early 1990s, global climate change emerged onto the international environmental agenda, spawning proposals to curb anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Such policy responses could impose an inequitable burden on developing countries by restricting their ability to exploit the same sources of energy used by richer nations to develop economically. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change attempted to accommodate such environmental equity concerns by acknowledging that developed countries, such as the United States and Japan, bear the primary responsibility for current and historical emissions of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol took force in 2005 without United States approval, and it stipulates a “common yet differentiated responsibility” that excludes some developing countries from emission reduction requirements.
Equity also exists centrally in natural resource access issues. For example, the richest 20 percent of society consumes 17 times more energy resources than the poorest 20 percent, and this pattern applies to many other natural resource and environmental harms. The disparities in resource access and consumption can be gleaned by evaluating the eco-footprint of citizens from different countries. Eco-footprint analysis portrays the amount of land and water needed to accommodate per capita consumption of resources and the disposal of associated waste. While the United States, Canada, and countries of western Europe have an ecofootprint of 12.35 to 24.7 acres per person (5-10 hectares), China’s per capita ecofootprint lies between 2.47 and 4.94 acres (1-2 hectares). An important corollary to uneven resource exploitation stems from inequalities in the generation and disposal of environmental waste, such as toxic and hazardous materials. The disproportionate burden of that waste on poorer segments of society underscores the primary concerns of the environmental justice movement. European colonial history adds an important dimension to resource access issues due to the well documented record of exporting natural resources from resource rich colonies in Africa, South America, and south Asia to the former ruling nation states, such as France, Spain, and Great Britain. This colonial legacy influences contemporary resource access debates, especially as the nation states forged from former colonial territory confront resource exploitation limits imposed by international environmental agreements and economic development funding arrangements. The resource development paths once available to many contemporary economic powers have proven untenable for developing countries required to pursue more efficient technologies.
The persistence of colonial influence in natural resource access and economic development suggests the primacy of intergenerational equity considerations in environmental discussions. Intergenerational equity considers the implications of current resource access and pollution for future generations. These issues have infused environmental policy debates with concerns over sustainability and sustainable development. Permanent biodiversity loss from habitat conversion associated with current levels of resource extraction and pollution demonstrates the basic concern of intergenerational equity: diminished environmental quality bequeathed to future generations as a consequence of current or historic resource consumption patterns.
Due to long-term natural variability in many indices of environmental quality, intergenerational equity impacts often defy rigorous evaluation and quantification. In other words, it is difficult to separate the environmental impact of human resource consumption patterns from the environmental changes wrought by natural variability. Despite the moral and political challenges associated with issues of environmental justice, natural resource access, and intergenerational equity, the equity dimensions of human-environment interactions remain a focal and growing concern in environmental policy and society.
- Agyeman, R.D. Bullard, and B. Evans, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (Earthscan Publications, 2002);
- Gabriela Kütting, Globalization and the Environment: Greening Global Political Economy (State University of New York Press, 2004);
- Wackernagel, et al., “National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept,” Ecological Economics (v.29, 1999).