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International Symposium highlights the relevancy and conceptual challenges of the Ecological Debt



An international Symposium on Ecological Debt took place in Paris on November 7th.

Organized by IDDRI and Sciences Po, it gathered international experts on the subject, and speakers from different countries.

Several members of EJOLT, an international project on Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade, including REEDS, were participating including two keynote speakers : Leida Rijnhout (ANPED) and Esperanza Martinez (Accion Ecologica).

The concept of ecological debt

The concept of ecological debt emerged from the local reactions to the impacts of the ozone layer hole in Chile in the 1990s. Though there is no straightforward definition of ecological debt, it is generally understood to be the debt one country or set of countries owe(s) to another, following the unequal exploitation of the natural and human resources of the latter by the former. By contrast, Leida Rijnhout defined ecological justice as giving all nations and people a fair share of natural resources.

Environmental Justice Organisations, such as Accion ecologica (Ecuador) and researchers, as Martinez Alier (Autonomous University of Barcelona - 2002) and Andrew Sims (New Economics Foundation - 2005) all have slightly different definitions.

What may be more relevant is the classification of ecological debt, and the discussion on its status: is it legal? ethical? can it be valued and how?

Speakers identified four categories of ecological debt:

1/ Carbon debt

2/ Biopiracy (illegitimate appropriation of traditional knowledge and genetic resources)

3/ Extraction of naturel resources: petroleum, etc. when it doesn't account for the social and environmental damage it creates.

4/ Exportation of hazardous waste towards poor countries.

Discussions of the concept and its applicability

In the opening sessions, economists Jean Gadrey and Olivier Godard defended opposed view on the legitimacy of this concept. O. Godard concentrated on a critique of the idea of carbon debt, and of the division between North and South in this issue. He may have a point, but this appeared as only a small part of the picture.

Further discussion and sessions highlighted the dynamic essence of legislation and human rights. Environmental justice may be an emerging human right, thus bringing the ecological debt to be slowly acknowledged by the community of nations. For instance, the reparations imposed to Germany after World War 2 didn't come after any legal contract between the countries, they were nevertheless implemented.

Illustrative examples

Yasuni ITT (Ecuador)

Several government initiatives seemed relevant to the implementation of the concept of ecological debt. The main case is the Yasuni ITT project launched by the government from Ecuador in 1997. Yasuni is a national park of 1 million hectares in the Amazon forest. It has some of the highest biodiversity in the world, as well as cultural diversity, with indigenous people in voluntary isolation. ITT refer to the initials of 3 petroleum wells, which could, if exploited, represent a quarter of Ecuador's current oil production. The government of Ecuador decided in 1997 not to exploit those wells in order to protect this extraordinary biodiversity and prevent further release of CO2. It has created a fund of about 3 billion $ to compensate the loss of revenue hereof, and asks the international community to provision about half the amount of the fund.

An important information for economic valuation is the former Texaco case, which allowed for monetary valuation of the costs of damage reparation. The sentence for Texaco amounted to 8,6 billion $, not including damages and costs endured by people (death, cancer...). 

Furthermore, the delegate from Accion Ecologica proposed a scheme replacing "Development" by "Well-Living" (Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa language).


The Ecologist party succeeded in introducing to the national Sustainable Development plan of 1997 a paragraph on the study of the ecological debt and its application in public policies. The study was then conducted by the Ghent university. It concluded that the carbon debt of Belgium alone amounted to 50 billion euros. As a comparison, public aid to developing countries is about 2 billion annually.  

Another discussion was led in parallel on the labour front. It succeeded in obliging the stakeholders to compare the level of progression of salaries, to the level of importation of raw material (one of the highest in Europe) and of energy consumption. Salary increases have been very modest over the decade compared to rises in importations and energy.

Parallel workshops in the afternoon discussed 1/ the relevance of ecological debt as a tool for environmental justice ; 2/ The relevancy of the North-South divide in relation to ecological debt, 3/ the intergenerational debt, 4/ the relationship between the ecological debt and development aid.

Key issues

It is interesting to mention some of the key issues discussed, which are far from being resolved: 

Talking about debt means agreement should be possible on identifying: a debitor, a creditor, and an amount owed. In other terms:

Is monetary valuation possible? And who should pay to whom, how and when?

From this point of view, valuation seems possible only taking a limited time frame (one or two decades) and the debt between pairs of specific countries.

Another line of discussion pertains to the legal recognition of ecological debt, and to strategies and actions to have it acknowledge in the international arena.

Practical initiatives, like those of Belgium and Ecuador seem to be interesting, however, to begin implementing this concept.

This discussion is ongoing in the research and political arenas. By participating in the EJOLT project on valuation and evaluation aspects, REEDS is contributing to this discussion.

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