We find that overall—while growing—there is a relatively small body of Earth System Governance literature on access and allocation and even less that has tried to explain the influence of access and allocation norms on global environmental governance (with exceptions, e.g. see: Okereke 2008). We did not find a clear thematic or geographical focus, although there is a slight tendency towards issues of climate change and ecosystem services and a focus on the local level. The review of this small body of the literature, nevertheless, revealed a rich diversity of perspectives on access and allocation.
Access: epistemological and ethical analysis
As mentioned earlier, researchers in the Earth System Governance project understand access as the “ability of individuals to secure a basic minimum of resources and ecospace” (Gupta and Lebel 2010, p. 379) or “meeting the basic needs of humans to live a life of dignity” (Biermann et al. 2009, p. 60). Looking through the epistemological lens, we would assume that the Earth System Governance literature would confront the ethical task of arguing for and substantiating what living a life of dignity means, what this implies for determining a basic minimum of resources and eco-space or basic needs and finally how they can be operationalized in particular social contexts (e.g. Klinsky and Dowlatabadi 2009; Martin et al. 2016; Meisch 2016; Okereke and Dooley 2010). In equal manner, we would expect literature which empirically studies how “basic needs” or “living a life of dignity” are represented in political and social contexts and which assess if and to what degree these contexts promote or impede access (e.g. Corbera et al. 2007; Corbera and Schroeder 2011; Bastos Lima and Gupta 2013). We find both lenses within the Earth System Governance literature. Klinsky and Dowlatabadi (2009) and Klinsky et al. (2017, pp. 171–172), in particular, highlight the importance of both, and call for a proactive debate on justice issues in climate change policy research. They speak of an “obligation to address human wellbeing” (Klinsky et al. 2017, p. 171) for “[r]igorous analysis that systematically considers the issue of justice is essential for our ability to understand and meaningfully inform the politics of climate action, especially in the post-Paris world” (Klinsky et al. 2017, p. 172). Below, we present our findings in more detail.
First, we find papers that discuss justice with regard to political or legal documents such as the Ramsar Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity or REDD+. These studies are mainly concerned with the just, fair or equitable implementation of these agreements and less so with using them as the reference points for substantiating justice, equity or fairness. Therefore, we do not classify them as examples of conservative justice. In contrast, we find a discernible engagement with ideal justice. Related papers identify philosophical approaches and compare their particular contribution to determining access, i.e. securing a basic minimum of resources and eco-space or meeting the basic needs of humans to live a life of dignity.
In their study on avoided deforestation, Okereke and Dooley (2010, p. 82) emphasize “the growing realization that the international arena is not beyond the pale of moral arguments but rather that the governance of global environmental change implicates elemental ethical questions regarding which ways of life human beings ought to pursue”. The authors draw attention to a pluralism of theories of justice which can be found in the academic literature (utilitarianism; liberal egalitarianism; market justice; justice as mutual advantage; communitarianism; meeting needs) and show for their case which normative implications and political effects each of these theories have. They suggest that further (meta-) analytical research is needed to assess whether some approaches are preferable to others and if so why.
Martin et al. (2016) criticize the dominant, Western ways to determine conservation justice that ignore “other cultures and other ways of thinking about justice in relation to the environment” which, in turn, affects access to political and knowledge-production processes. The authors focus on “recognition” in conservation justice, i.e. “respecting identities and cultural difference”, in particular of indigenous people in nature conservation policies (Martin et al. 2016, pp. 255–259). As they believe that “a single definition of justice-as-recognition […] would ignore important differences in understanding, including among political philosophers” (Martin et al. 2016, p. 255), they compare and discuss four understandings of recognition (Hegelianism, Critical theory, De-colonialism, Capabilities).
Building on the theories of justice by Martha Nussbaum and Alan Gewirth, respectively, Meisch (2016, pp. 67–68) develops what it means to live a life of dignity, and what this implies for determining access. Nussbaum’s Capability Approach and Gewirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency each identify entitlements of every human to live a life of dignity. Both argue for the normative claim that human dignity possesses an overriding priority over other practical considerations. To them, dignity signifies what humans owe each other and what can legitimately claim to be included in political and legal rules. They specify the aspects of human life that are indispensable parts of human dignity, create direct obligations to other humans and the state and are thus the basis for determining access.
Second, with regard to the corrective-distributive conceptual justice pair, we find a discernible interest in the questions of what people need access to and what thus needs to be distributed (distributive justice). In their conceptual paper, Gupta and Lebel (2010, pp. 380–382) draw attention to the fact that this question cannot relate solely to resources but must also extend to the possibility of participation in processes of political decision-making. Corbera et al. (2007) address different aspects of justice in relation to access to ecosystem services. They ask about the fair distribution of access rights to markets, networks and processes of knowledge production. In doing so, they highlight the weaknesses of certain political solutions, especially the market approach in particular leading to unjust global distributions affecting local communities. They propose a three-tiered equity framework covering procedural, substantial and distributive aspects: “equity in access, equity in decision-making and equity in outcome. Equity in access concerns the way in which individual farmers, rural communities and organisations are able to participate in emerging markets. This depends on access to information, knowledge and networks, as well as on access to land and forest resources” (Corbera et al. 2007, p. 368). With regard to the corrective-distributive lenses, we also found many articles studying the close relationship of corrective and distributive justice. Corbera and Schroeder (2011) in particular combine both justice lenses. The authors deal not only with how rights of access to information and participation can be fairly distributed, but also with “the un-doing of perceived injustices” (Corbera and Schroeder 2011, p. 94). Other authors examine how aspects of corrective and distributive justice can be imagined together. This perspective results from their research interests in environmental governance in Africa and climate policy. In both cases, they are addressing future-oriented policies, each of which has its own specific (colonial) background (Habtezion et al. 2015; Kanie et al. 2010).
Third, we find a greater focus on issues of procedural than on substantive justice and in particular the question of how local communities can have access to ecosystem services when previous approaches of resource governance have failed and responses to emerging sustainability challenges are needed. Salisu Barau and Stringer (2015, p. 170) raise the questions of how international sustainability conventions (such as the Ramsar Convention and Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD) can be implemented in such a way that no new injustices arise locally and what (whose) knowledge is included in the description of the local problem to be solved. They thus refer to an important aspect of procedural justice, namely the right of people to contribute to the definition of the problem that concerns them themselves and that is to be solved politically. This reveals the close connection between aspects of knowledge and power. Corbera and Schroeder (2011) are also concerned with access to ecosystems and the governance and implementation of international agreements, in their case REDD+. They emphasize procedural aspects of justice, ranging from access to information of indigenous peoples and local communities to access to participation in all stages of the establishment and management of REDD+ sites. Coolsaet and Pitseys (2015) present an approach to procedural justice that is critical of substantial understandings of justice. They clearly spell out what they mean by procedural justice, i.e. that everyone can participate in decision-making processes and influence them to a sufficient degree. Their research “contributes to previous research pointing to the use of normative argumentation in multilateral environmental negotiations as a strategy to alter the ways parties define, frame, and understand what is and what ought to be” (Coolsaet and Pitseys 2015, p. 51).
Fourth, in their study on the policy contexts of biofuels, Bastos Lima and Gupta (2013) indicate one way in which access and allocation interrelate. The authors emphasize that access must not be limited to goods alone, but should also include rights and the possibility to participate in political processes. Their paper focuses on the global level and the possibility for non-state actors of the global South to participate in political processes. Bastos Lima and Gupta show how allocation issues in the global North produce access problems in the global South. Overall, however, there is no systematic research on the conceptual and empirical relationship between access and allocation (cf. e.g. Spengler 2016).
In summary, the access literature of Earth System Governance research explores justice from different perspectives. Epistemologically, we find some papers making statements on justice as the aim of their study, in particular those using an ideal justice lens. With regard to ethical lenses, there is an emphasis on distributive and procedural justice.
Allocation: epistemological and ethical analysis
Epistemologically, questions of allocation tend to the object rather than the aim of research in the Earth System Governance literature. Indeed, efforts focus on identifying which notions—mostly of distributive justice—are represented in policy documents, practices and institutions rather than in arguing in favour of particular ideal conceptualizations of justice. This is related, most likely, to the predominantly social scientific background of the Earth System Governance community working on these issues and the relatively little (up to now) involvement from philosophy and legal disciplines. Related to this epistemological focus, the ethical analysis also reveals that the majority of the allocation literature examined here explores—and often also contests—existing claims for justice. It nonetheless focuses less on arguing for and substantiating (alternative and/or new) claims for justice.
More specifically, first, we find that the allocation literature is often concerned with conservative justice in that it takes the existing rules and global governance institutions as a given but with a view to clarifying their underlying ethical principles and critically reflecting on their inadequacies. Although it does not contemplate ideal claims for justice, it relies on existing ideal and non-ideal approaches to justice in order to evaluate current policies, predominately in the climate domain. For example, examining which notions of distributive justice permeate environmental policy and governance, Klinsky and Dowlatabadi (2009, pp. 89–94) use an applied ethics approach to examine which distribution rules are applied in climate policy, how the problem of climate change and climate policy is understood and which metrics are used to measure costs and benefits. They find that visions of distributive justice within climate policy are narrow which in turn may limit our understanding of which options are available and present the best fit with the climate change challenge. Likewise, Okereke and Dooley (2010, pp. 84–86) draw on theories of distributive justice to determine which interpretations of equity are embodied in the key proposals and policy approaches to REDD in the run up to the post-Kyoto climate agreement and indicate the potential practical consequences of such approaches. They use six broad principles of justice as the basis of a framework from which to analyse the different REDD proposals: utilitarianism; liberal egalitarianism; market justice; justice as mutual advantage; communitarianism; meeting needs. They find that nearly all proposals before the UNFCCC include varying and sometimes conflicting notions of justice. But they prioritize those proposals that are consistent with market-based conceptions of justice.
Second, we also find that the literature on allocation focuses in particular on questions of distributive justice. Within this part of the literature, we can broadly identify (a) efforts to elaborate upon and operationalize distributive justice into criteria and indicators and (b) distributive justice impacts from current policies and solutions to environmental challenges. To illustrate the development of distributive justice criteria and indicators, Stadelmann et al. (2014) investigate indicators necessary to allocate international funding for adaptation to climate change given the challenge of prioritizing project proposals subject to limited funding. They associate distributive justice with equity which they define based on Adams (1965) as distribution of resources perceived as fair by relational partners. Reviewing political science literature on equity in the context of vulnerability—which they perceive as the most important condition in relation to adaptation finance—they develop three equity indicators: equal funding per capita (proxy for equality between individuals); support for the most vulnerable countries; and support for the poorest countries as measured by their Gross Domestic Product per capita. Applying these criteria to 39 Adaptation Fund (AF) projects, they find that contrary to AF’s goal, it has rather approved projects from high-income and less vulnerable countries with high absolute economic savings while not approving projects in poor, vulnerable countries with high relative economic savings.
Kanie et al. (2010), on the other hand, try to quantify allocation criteria under the “common but differentiated responsibility” principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They note that the debate on climate policy at the time of writing their article was on the reallocation of economic benefits. They examine three allocation criteria: responsibility (the extent to which each country is responsible for climate change); capability (or ability to pay); and efficiency (of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions). They point out the difficulties in translating these criteria into quantifiable calculations and that scenarios based on quantifiable criteria are not value free and often value biases are not understood beyond the narrow circles of experts. In this context, they underline the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations in order to avoid contradictions and unravel the ethical biases.
Regarding impacts, the Earth System Governance literature points out that the poor and marginalized are the principle affected parties of global environmental governance. Thus, in their analysis of biofuel governance Bastos Lima and Gupta (2013, p. 58) note that “biofuel research, development and production have mostly been linked to consolidated agricultural sectors rather than to small-scale agriculture or to strategies that target poverty”. The growing volume of produced biofuels goes to higher-income consumers. Much biofuel production is allocated to the South to meet Northern demands. According to the authors, this can aggravate existing equity needs. Corbera and Schroeder (2011, pp. 94–95) in their introduction to the special issue on governance and implementation of REDD+ from an allocation perspective ask whether the distribution mechanisms of REDD+ would reach all those who have contributed to preserving forests; how forests and indigenous communities who may not enjoy tenure rights can trust that they will be compensated for their efforts under REDD+; and what the social and environmental safeguards under REDD+ are. Citing other research they point out that there is an uneven distribution of activities across tropical countries. Specifically, the largest share of REDD readiness and demonstration activities was implemented in Indonesia and Brazil which is related to these countries’ greatest forest emission reduction potential. Based on these and other country related characteristics, they point out a strong bias towards African countries (Cerbu et al. 2011).
However, corrective justice is also examined albeit less often. Here, different propositions can be identified. Gupta and Lebel (2010) propose a multidisciplinary perspective on the study of access and allocation and illustrate its application to water management and climate change. Regarding allocation in particular they note the absence of any clear mechanisms for allocating responsibilities for dealing with environmental risks. They give the example of the polluter pays principle that has turned into the polluter gets paid principle under emissions trading systems for climate change mitigation. (Instead of being held accountable, polluters are allowed to trade their emissions). They note dependence of allocation (and access) on the role of social actors, coalitions and movements in debating, promoting and pushing for access and allocation, mobilizing resources, science and technology and actually ensuring the implementation of access and allocation. They also adopt a language of rights as allocation issues are often mired in historical systems of rights.
Taking a different approach, Zeitoun et al. (2016, p. 149) attribute the causes of inequitable distributions of benefits and risks to a political economy that disadvantages those who are already vulnerable or marginalized. Accordingly, they propose the “confrontation of the political, economic and technological arrangements that some judge as unfair or unsustainable, even where more powerful actors might argue these are reasonable”. In this context, Gupta (2018, p. 267) argues in favour of examining climate finance particularly for adaptation purposes which in its current form appears to “shift the risk of burden from those who gain from fossil fuel use, to those who are affected”.
Habtezion et al. (2015) in one of the few studies with a focus on Africa note the importance of benefit sharing for communities whose livelihoods are most affected by climatic stresses. They put particular emphasis on finance and propose that priority research should ask: what policy and regulatory tools are helpful in ensuring effective and equitable handling or management of resources. They further advise that such research needs to examine how to minimize corruption; how to promote equitable sharing of benefits and burdens of global environmental change in Africa; and how to frame the developed countries obligations to mitigate adverse effects that accrue to Africa and what can Africa do on its part. Finally, the authors ask for clarity and tools to identify opportunities for finance and identify the best way to define the rules of access to human and financial resources and accompanying capacity and economic limitations facing Africa.
Third, the allocation literature examined here also tries to link questions of allocation with procedural requirements. Regarding procedural requirements, this literature points to the importance of procedures for the fairness of distribution. Thus, Coolsaet and Pitseys (2015) in their review of the notion of fair and equitable sharing as understood in the Nagoya Protocol note the importance of examining the material, social, cultural and institutional circumstances within which the decision-making structure that leads to the distribution of benefits and burdens takes place. Fairness and equity of a benefit sharing agreement thus depend on a decision-making procedure governed by principles of procedural justice. In this context, the authors demonstrate the importance of using normative argumentation driven by arguments of public interest as a strategy to alter the way parties define, frame and understand what is and what ought to be served to the benefit of the disadvantaged; and the importance of formal equality in target and process-based negotiation strategies (one country-one vote). Martin et al. (2016) discuss distribution alongside the procedural and recognition dimensions in a tripartite framework. They define distribution as “differences between stakeholders in terms of who enjoys rights to material benefits and who bears costs and responsibilities”. While the paper’s emphasis is on recognition, this is often considered the basis for meaningful participation (Fraser et al. 2004).
Finally, a few scholars try to make the link between allocation and substantive sustainability outcomes. Thus, in an editorial Schroeder (2014) explores the existence of links between inequitable access and allocation and severe ecological degradation and social stress in the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity and climate change. She concludes that ultimately these issues are a feature of inadequate governance. Andersson and Agrawal (2011) examine how equality and ecological sustainability are related by drawing upon data from multiple localities in several countries in the developing world (India, Nepal. Kenya, Uganda, Bolivia and Mexico). They show that economic inequalities, in particular, have consistently negative effects on resources. But these can be moderated by local institutional arrangements as measured by the strength of collective action for different joint activities among users. Specifically, when local forest users are well organized and have effective rule-making, monitoring and enforcement systems in place, they are found to systematically reduce the detrimental effects that inequality between groups have on forest conditions.
In short, the allocation literature of Earth System Governance research uses different ethical lenses to examine allocation questions, with an emphasis on distributive justice and a reliance on applied rather than ideal norms of justice.