Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Good Environmental Policies Equal More Just Societies

Mar 9, 2015

Ecological health and environmental policy have not always been recognized as foundations of social justice. But as the interdependent relationship between people and the environment becomes more and more obvious, the concept of social justice has grown to include concerns of environmental equity and accessibility.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project recently published a report analyzing the levels of social justice in European Union nations through the development of a Social Justice Index (SJI). The SJI is composed of six dimensions: poverty prevention, equitable education, labor market access, social cohesion and non-discrimination, health, and intergenerational justice.

At first glance, these dimensions may appear to disregard environmental concerns, but when enacted properly, environmental policies can facilitate a more just society. And when environmental policies are implemented with no concern for social justice, they can contribute to social and environmental inequalities, exacerbating the disparity between a nation's wealthy and a nation's poor.

In general, Northern European nations perform well in terms of social justice, while Southern and Southeastern nations struggle. This same trend is apparent when looking specifically at environmental issues, and the connection between the two cannot be ignored. After all, "it is only through the conservation and renewal of natural resources that environmental conditions can be fairly preserved for future generations," write Bertelsmann Stifung's experts.

Specific policies that work to preserve resources for the future include green taxes, renewable energy standards, conservation of biodiversity and scarce resources, and incentivizing research and development towards building a sustainable future.

Environmental sustainability affects intergenerational justice particularly

Environmental issues are particularly important for the intergenerational dimension of the SJI. It is based on the tenet that current generations should not live at the expense of future generations, and that unjust transfers of burdens should be avoided. Key indicators here include greenhouse gas emissions, the proportion of energy from renewable sources, and environmental policy more broadly.

In the overall assessment of the intergenerational justice dimension, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia are the leaders, providing ample opportunities for young people and promoting fiscal and environmental sustainability.

Sweden, in particular, comes out ahead in terms of renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions. The country is seeing decreasing CO2 emissions, though this is a consequence of their controversial reliance on nuclear energy. Sweden is also seeing a decrease in its ecological footprint, an increase in biodiversity, and an emphasis on green taxes.

Just behind Sweden, Latvia is the EU country with the highest share of renewable energy in their total energy consumption. The country's good score on renewable energy and intergenerational justice might come as a surprise as Latvia is ranked in the bottom part in SJI's overall assessment of social justice. It has large shortcomings in the areas of poverty prevention or health. On environmental issues, however, Latvia shows strength and its environmental policy successfully protects marine water quality, forests, and biodiversity, among others.

By contrast, Greece, Italy, and Cyprus are ranked in the bottom on intergenerational justice due to, among others, their shortcomings in environmental sustainability. Compared to all EU countries, Cyprus's environmental policy is deemed particularly insufficient. Preserving its water resources is an especially great challenge for the island state.

Greece, too, lacks a comprehensive environmental policy and agricultural development usually trumps conservation. The ruling Syriza Party has acquired some green credentials and is today in alliance with the Greek Green Party. Yet, to what extent the Greek government will be able to pursue its eco-friendly ambitions given the country's difficult economic and political situation, remains to be seen. Greece is currently faced, for instance, with the decision to increase its reliance on cheap fossil fuels as opposed to investing in renewable energy.

Decision-makers must recognize the links between social and environmental justice

A traditional and politically easy way to improve social justice is to raise the living standards of the poor while doing nothing for the living standards of the rich. This strategy, however, neglects the needs of future generations, and is therefore nothing more than a band-aid on a gaping wound.

An Oxfam report argues that combining social and planetary boundaries can create a safe, sustainable place in which humanity can thrive. For instance, providing electricity to the 19 percent of people living without it would increase global emissions by less than 1 percent, and that number depends upon where the electricity would come from.

It is clear that environmental sustainability and social justice are not at odds with one another. Indeed, social justice can only be truly achieved through the equitable distribution of natural resources. While long-term planning for environmental sustainability may require some sacrifices in the short-term, these sacrifices can be minimized through the enactment of intelligent, equitable planning. It need not be a trade-off between wealth and sustainability.

Nations like Sweden, Finland, and Germany have demonstrated that social justice and sustainable environmental policies can both be achieved. We have the knowledge to create policies that promote both social justice and environmental sustainability. The challenge is ensuring that decision-makers recognize the inextricable links between social justice and environmental sustainability, so that the necessity for such policies is understood.

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