The present societal use of resources is not sustainable in the long run, mainly because the costs associated with unsustainable activities do not affect those that carry out these activities. The notion of ecological debt focuses on this disequilibrium: the majority who over-exploit the global commons (rich countries) owe an ecological debt to those in possession of resources (poor countries). The poor are not using even a small portion of their legitimate share of the global commons, while the North has been permitted to pollute over the last century without limits and at little cost to build its economy and industrial base cheaply and rapidly.
The first discussions on the ecological debt concept took place around 1990, largely thanks to inputs from Latin American NGOs, and then followed by Friends of the Earth International. In 1992, during the Rio Summit, the idea of a Debt Treaty was proposed, which introduced the notion of an ecological debt in contraposition to the external debt.
While no official definition of ecological debt exists, Accion Ecologica (1999) defined it as ‘the debt accumulated by northern industrial countries towards third world countries on account of resource plundering and use of environmental space to deposit wastes’. In 2009 the Centre for Sustainable Development (CDO) at Ghent University (see Paredis et al. 2009) proposed as a working definition: (1) the ecological damage caused over time by a country in other countries or to ecosystems beyond national jurisdiction through its production and consumption patterns; (2) the exploitation or use of ecosystems (and its goods and services) over time by a country at the expense of the equitable rights to these ecosystems by other countries.
The ecological debt concept focuses on the lack of political power of poor regions and countries. The debt arises from: (1) exports of raw materials and other products from relatively poor countries or regions being sold at prices which do not include compensation for local or global externalities; (2) rich countries or regions making disproportionate use of environmental space or services without payment (for instance, to dump carbon dioxide). Ecological debt usually designates a public debt a country has towards other countries (foreign debt) but can also be used to calculate a debt (or liability) from a company (private debt) or a debt a nation has towards future generations (generational debt).
The notion of ecological debt raises difficult political and ethical questions. At what period should we start calculating the debt? It might be considered as an injustice to the present generation that we should pay for the debts of past generations, but if we do not take responsibility for the debt of past generations, who should?
Regarding its methodology, the main objection to the notion of ecological debt is that it implies monetisation of nature’s services, which is not a matter of consensus amongst researchers or campaigners. The method proposed to calculate ecological debt requires money estimates of the value of the environment, which are difficult to make, for various reasons (uncertainties, incomparable impacts, limited substitutability between natural and human-made capital, arbitrariness of the discount rate and ethics barriers). Theoretically, it may be possible to put a money value on ecological debt by calculating the value of the environmental and social externalities associated with historic resource extraction and adding an estimated value for the share of global pollution problems borne by poor countries as the result of higher consumption levels in rich ones. This includes efforts to value the external costs associated with climate change. Such monetary accounts (Goemmine and Paredis, 2010; and Srinivasan et al. 2008) might be useful to ecological debt campaigners from civil society.
The ecological debt concept, therefore, casts a new light on our understanding of ‘sustainable development’, not just by adding a historical dimension but by bringing power and justice to centre stage, to reveal control over resources and pollution burdens as an issue of power relations. The point is not to exchange external debt for protection of nature (e.g. debt for nature swaps) but to emphasize that the external debt from South to North has already been paid on account of the ecological debt the North owes to the South, and to stop the ecological debt from increasing any further. The concept has the potential to help the implementation of sustainability and to fight environmental injustices.
Acción Ecológica (1999) No More Plunder, They Owe Us the Ecological Debt! Bulletin of Acción Ecológica 78 (October) 1999. Acción Ecológica: Quito, Ecuador.
Goeminne, G., Paredis, E. (2010) The concept of ecological debt: some steps towards an enriched sustainability paradigm. Environment, development and sustainability, 12(5), 691-712.
Srinivasan, U. T., Carey, S. P., Hallstein, E., Higgins, P. A., Kerr, A. C., Koteen, L. E., and Norgaard, R. B. (2008) The debt of nations and the distribution of ecological impacts from human activities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(5), 1768-1773.
Paredis, E., Goeminne, G., Vanhove, W., Maes, F., Lambrecht, J. (2009) The concept of ecological debt: its meaning and applicability in international policy. Academia Press Scientific Pub.
For further reading:
Martinez-Alier, J. (2002) Ecological debt and property rights on carbon sinks and reservoirs. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 13(1), 115-119.
Rice, J. (2009) North—South Relations and the Ecological Debt: Asserting a Counter-Hegemonic Discourse. Critical Sociology, 35(2), 225-252.
This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Lea Sebastien
EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos