Governance Challenges in Promoting Environmental Justice

Amy Braun

May 1, 2011

Environmental concerns are inherently global concerns because of the interconnectedness of the earth’s environmental systems and communities. Ecosystems transcend created state boundaries; problems such as climate change, rising sea levels, desertification, pollution and species extinction affect people in all parts of the world. Some communities and countries, however, are affected much more than others. The impacts of global environmental change are felt in different ways at the local level and the costs of environmental degradation are not equally borne throughout the world nor equally distributed within localities.

Environmental justice has been defined in many different ways depending on the context. In this case, a definition of environmental justice will be articulated in two parts. The first part is justice as a right: environmental justice refers to “the right to a safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environment for all, where ‘environment’ is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments.”[1] Second, environmental justice is a set of conditions that support the fulfillment of that right, “whereby individual and group identities, needs, and dignities are preserved, fulfilled, and respected in a way that provides for self-actualization and personal and community empowerment.”[2]

Such a comprehensive definition extends beyond a traditional view of environmental justice as a matter of distribution of benefits and risks. While equitable distribution is critical to achieving environmental justice, it must be understood within a larger social and historical context. Numerous studies have documented instances of environmental injustices and found that disproportionate exposure to environmental risks is correlated with race and class.[3] To work for environmental justice is to seek to understand not only the particular environmental issue at hand, such as the disposal of hazardous waste in a low-income minority community, but to challenge the institutions and systems that allow environmental injustices to continue.[4]

Environmental injustices pose significant governance challenges at the international, national and local levels. Governance structures and decisions affect the distribution of environmental costs and often perpetuate rather than alleviate environmental injustices. This examination of governance challenges in promoting environmental justice finds that existing state and international governance institutions are insufficient mechanisms for securing environmental justice; a multi-sector, multi-level governance approach that integrates civil-society and social movement actors is needed.[5] The remainder of this paper will explore different frameworks of justice that might inform just environmental governance and examine the global governance challenges related to one pressing instance of environmental injustice – the disposal of hazardous wastes. Finally, the role of civil society movements in environmental governance will be examined in order to better understand how their participation can promote environmental justice.

Theories of Justice

At the core of environmental justice is an emphasis on distributive justice: that opportunities, benefits and risks are equitably and fairly distributed in a society. Distributive justice is a cornerstone of environmental justice practice and thinking. Environmental justice must also go deeper than distribution because in addition to the interactions between communities and the environment, environmental justice deals with the fundamental ways that political power is distributed and wielded. Inequalities and injustices in governance perpetuate environmental injustices and fail to create the conditions that allow us to realize the right to a safe and healthy environment.

Considering justice as recognition addresses underlying causes of maldistribution and examines inequalities in distribution in a social context.[6] Injustices of recognition include “cultural domination, non-recognition, and lack of respect” [7] for groups; such practices and attitudes may become institutionalized and lead to the inability of under-recognized groups to access environmental resources or participate in environmental decision making. Distribution and recognition are mutually influential: distribution of benefits and risks asks how much goes to whom, while questions of recognition ask why this is so.[8] In the case of environmental justice, recognition serves to foster human dignity and create social conditions that protect and promote human and environmental rights. Justice of recognition helps to prevent “patterns of disrespect and disesteem [becoming] institutionalized.”[9]

What, then, is the role of the governance structures in promoting distributive and recognition justice in localities, within states and globally? Just governance processes are more likely to lead to just policy outcomes, so governance structures should handle environmental concerns within a framework of procedural justice, defined as “fair and equitable institutional processes of a state.”[10] Participation in governance is often seen as a way to correct distributional and recognition injustices; yet these same injustices can hamper participation and prevent equal and fair participation from occurring.[11]

A number of general prescriptions are recommended for increasing procedural justice in environmental decision-making. First, governance mechanisms should include the public because environmental decisions are likely to impact the entire community. In cases of injustice, race and class are key determinants in distributing risks, with higher environmental risks meted out to people of color and low-income communities. Governance of the environment must promote involvement of people who have traditionally been marginalized in environmental decision-making yet are deeply affected by such decisions. Second, participation demands that decisions not automatically be ceded to “experts” such as environmental scientists and appointed officials. Communities must have access to information about the potential benefits, opportunities and risks of environmental decisions such as waste disposal and the use of chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).[12] Thirdly, involvement of stakeholders must extend beyond voicing opinions and include some actual decision-making power and ability to influence outcomes. For example, “Good Neighbor Agreements” have been used to establish formal roles and relationships between corporations and community groups.[13] Such agreements are tools that supplement government regulation and allow increased local participation in managing relationships with corporations that pose environmental risks.

One caveat of attempting to promote environmental justice through fair and equitable participation only is that participation and procedure are closely intertwined with recognition and distribution. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has established the same grievance procedure for all communities who wish to file a complaint about an environmental problem. State procedural equity is clearly defined on paper: the same process applies to all and, theoretically, should work equally for all communities. But inequities in recognition, such as racism, classism, caste, and cultural disrespect, and distribution, such as unequal access to scientific and legal knowledge and disproportionately burdensome financial costs of preparing and presenting a complaint, impact the way procedural equity might be realized. While state agency emphasis on procedural equity is vitally important, examining policies through a lens of environmental justice suggests that the complex interplay of inequities in distribution, recognition and participation must be better understood to promote governance that fosters environmental justice.[14]

Environmental justice is more than an equitable distribution of benefits, opportunities and risks. Justice involves recognition and procedural elements, which are equally as influential as distribution. In the next section, a governance solution to the problem of hazardous waste disposal will be evaluated in light of these three justice principles and recommendations offered on the policy implications of an environmental justice lens for governance.

‘Toxic Imperialism’ and the Global Waste Trade

Hazardous waste disposal is a glaring example of environmental injustice in which disproportionate environmental risks are distributed to communities based on race and class. This occurs both within and between countries through dumping and recycling of hazardous wastes that are harmful to health and the environment. Global North countries produce 90% of the world’s hazardous wastes,[15] which are substances that pose a significant present or future health or environmental hazard.[16] Ongoing economic expansion in industrialized countries has fueled a proliferation of the types and quantities of chemicals and other harmful substances. While the maldistribution of hazardous waste remains a grave problem within states, this discussion will focus on the global export of hazardous waste and the international convention developed to regulate this trade.

The system of hazardous waste export reveals several layers of global injustice. Through this waste trade, less industrialized countries are, in effect, paying for the industrialization of their Northern counterparts: “While developed countries externalize costs associated with hazardous waste disposal, developing countries are internalizing the social, health and environmental costs of industrialization in developed countries.”[17] This system of internalizing benefits of industrial processes and passing on the health costs to less industrialized countries has been termed “toxic imperialism.”[18]

Pellow identifies four reasons for the increase in hazardous waste exports from global North to global South countries. First, as global North countries produce more toxic waste, the means of domestic waste disposal are shrinking. Northern countries continue to expand industrial consumption and, through growing their industries and economies, are producing more and more waste. These same countries are also tightening environmental regulations that govern the disposal of hazardous wastes. Activists in high waste-producing countries have mobilized to secure stricter and more protective environmental regulatory frameworks for hazardous waste production and disposal in their own localities. Environmental movements have forced polluters to seek alternative mechanisms for waste disposal, a sentiment captured in the slogan NIMBY (not in my backyard).[19]

Second, Southern countries receive financial incentives for importing toxic wastes. This is a legitimate source of state revenue. Third, economic globalization remains a powerful motivator of governance decisions. The capitalist pressure to continue growing, expanding and increasing profits drives industries and governments to cut costs where possible and continue growing unchecked. Finally, Pellow identifies a pervading ideology of racism and classism that makes environmental injustice permissible. This way of thinking values some human lives less than others and accepts the misdistribution of risks.[20] It is also institutionalized at the highest levels, a disturbing example of which can be found in official and internal memos of former World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers. Summers argued that “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable” because the wages lost due to an early death from environmental exposure would be less in a poor country than in a rich one.[21] Such a monetary valuing of human life, based on income and linked with race, reinforces environmental injustice. These four factors created conditions that supported a growing export of hazardous wastes to countries lacking mechanisms to manage the waste safely, thus shifting the waste burden from wealthier waste producers to more vulnerable populations.

International Governance Response

In the face of rising negative environmental and health impacts caused by the global waste trade, many global South states and activists advocated strongly for an international mechanism to ban hazardous waste exports. This resulted in the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (1989), a convention that regulates the movement of toxic wastes across international borders. Although the majority of non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries wanted a complete ban on toxic waste exports, the Convention is instead a regulatory mechanism. Global North countries pushed for regulation based on a free trade argument, suggesting that an export ban would “encumber individual autonomy, free trade and freedom of contract.”[22] Banning waste exports and dealing with hazardous waste at home would also be far too economically inefficient and politically unpopular.

The Basel Convention has been strongly critiqued for following global North interests at the expense of the global South populations it was designed to protect from toxic imperialism. Among the strongest criticisms are over inadequate and vague definitions. For example, the Convention fails to explicitly define “hazardous wastes,” leaving the question of nuclear waste up for interpretation and potentially outside the purview of the Convention. The Basel Convention also mandates that toxic wastes be handled under “environmentally sound management” (Article 2.8), a concept that is vague and difficult to regulate. As with many international conventions, Basel is also critiqued for weak liability, enforcement and monitoring structures. The Basel Convention is not without merits as it does impose limits on hazardous waste exports in what was formerly an unregulated system. The 1994 Basel Ban effectively banned the export of hazardous waste from OECD countries to non-OECD countries for final disposal;[23] while this ban can be circumvented by exporting wastes for recycling or reuse, it is an important step in stopping the flow of toxic wastes from global North to global South.[24]

Evaluation of the Basel Convention from an Environmental Justice Perspective

Given its strengths and limitations and its status as an international governance tool, how does the Basel Convention fare from an environmental justice perspective? In terms of distributive justice, Anand finds the Basel Convention to be lacking. Because it only regulates and does not ban global toxic waste exports, the system of toxic imperialism is legitimized and institutionalized. Global North countries that produce waste and enjoy the benefits of industrialization are still permitted to export hazardous wastes (which include health and environmental costs) to poorer countries. Many of the waste-importing countries are drawn by the financial incentives but lack the infrastructure, institutions, and legal frameworks to manage the waste and its associated health and environmental costs.[25]

The Convention also fails to address justice as recognition. Although an international convention is not a panacea for addressing issues of racism, classism, and cultural disrespect, a convention, at minimum, should not further institutionalize such practices and attitudes. Pellow points out that institutional racism “is evident when institutions (governments, corporations, agencies, and even large environmental organizations) make decisions that appear to be race neutral in their intent but often result in racially unequal impacts.”[26] The Basel Convention maintains the system of hazardous waste exports to poor nations, a practice that is racist “because the peoples of most poor nations are primarily non-European peoples of color, and poverty is highly correlated with race around the globe.”[27]

Perhaps the Convention’s greatest shortcoming lies in procedural justice: the Convention reflected the wishes of global North countries rather than the more numerous global South countries. Despite numerous objections to a regulatory framework in favor of an outright ban, the more powerful countries pushing for regulation exercised more influence in the Convention process. This procedural injustice speaks to the larger procedural flaws in the international system: although each UN member nation is regarded as a sovereign equal, some states have considerably more power and bargaining leverage than others. As within the United Nations, countries with less political and economic clout have less participatory and procedural decision-making power.

Participation also remains a concern within hazardous waste importing countries. The Convention requires that a state cannot export hazardous waste without prior consent of the importing state; this consent comes from the importing government that will receive the financial incentives, but not necessarily the consent or participation of the citizens of that country who will have to deal with incoming hazardous wastes.[28]

The Basel Convention shows that international instruments can be weak in securing global environmental justice. Issues of distribution, recognition and participation must be considered when constructing a governance framework that supports environmental justice. To make up for weaknesses in the Basel Convention, several regional bans on toxic waste trade have been developed and NGOs and social movements continue transnational advocacy for stricter protections.

A Civil Society Response

Environmental problems are not easily contained within state boundaries due to their global nature and scope.[29] Global concerns such as climate change and pollution are addressed through international governance frameworks: that is, proposed solutions are mediated through the work of state governments. International politics affects the capacity for international mechanisms to promote environmental justice. The toxic waste trade, for example, is “fundamentally imbedded in the global political economy and one that emphasizes unequal social relations of power, throwing up questions of race, class and gender.”[30] Because of the weaknesses of international governance mechanisms in promoting environmental justice, as illustrated by the Basel Convention, greater involvement of civil society actors and social movements in environmental governance may contribute to environmental justice.

During and after the Basel Convention negotiations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been instrumental in gathering information and shaping the discussion.[31] As non-governmental actors, NGOs tend to be marginalized in governance. Yet many environmental justice benefits can be found in increasing the participation of NGOs and social movements in environmental governance. Gemmill and Bemidele-Izu argue that NGOs perform important functions that can help expose environmental injustices. Such organizations often do research and collect information and data on environmental impacts, provide consultative services to both communities and policy makers, and assist with policy implementation, assessment and monitoring.[32] Local level research and advocacy can bring distributive injustices to the attention of policy makers. Activism in local groups and social movements also promotes agency, voice and recognition of communities that have been historically affected by racism and classism. Increasing NGO and civil society participation also furthers procedural justice by creating more space for decision-making, consultation and participation by diverse stakeholders, including those excluded from policymaking.[33]

Environmental justice is both a right for all people and a set of social conditions that foster the protection and realization of this right. Creating the conditions that promote environmental justice requires looking at environmental inequalities and asking why they came about: what institutions and systems uphold these inequalities, and what governance mechanisms can be put in place to rectify them? Governing for environmental justice requires challenging vested interests and institutional racism. It requires embracing a multi-faceted notion of justice that includes distribution, recognition and participation. The ongoing global trade in hazardous wastes reveals that current governance mechanisms fall far short of supporting environmental justice. But civil society activism is a promising avenue for influencing governance structures to better create safe environments for all people, so that the costs and risks of environmental degradation are not placed on those who had the least part in creating them.

[1] Source: NRE 392 Coursepack (Welsch). University of Michigan. Winter 1997. Dollar Bill Copying. Accessed March 27, 2011: (
[2] Ibid.
[3] For a literature review, please see Robin Lanette Turner and Diana Pei Wu. Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism: An Annotated Bibliography focusing on U.S. Literature, 1996-2002. Berkeley, CA:
Berkeley Workshop on Environmental Politics, Institute for International Studies. Digital library of the Commons, 2002. Accessed March 27, 2011: link 
[4] These definitions of environmental justice focus on the impacts of environmental risks on the human community. A growing discourse on ecological justice considers human beings as one set of stakeholders within a larger ecosystem approach and considers nonhuman nature as a subject of justice. Due to limitations of time and space, this discussion will deal with environmental justice as applied to human beings.
[5] Rolf Lidskog and Ingemar Elander. “Addressing Climate Change Democratically. Multi-Level Governance, Transnational Networks and Governmental Structures.” Sustainable Development 18: 32-41 (2010). Hereinafter referred to as Lidskog and Elander.
[6] David Schlosberg. Defining Environmental Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 14. Hereinafter referred to as Schlosberg.
[7] Ibid. 16.
[8] Ibid. 24.
[9] Qtd. in Schlosberg 28.
[10] Schlosberg 25.
[11] Ibid. 28.
[12] Ruchi Anand. International Environmental Justice: A North-South Dimension. Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2004. Page 18. Hereinafter referred to as Anand.
[13] Sanford Lewis and Diane Henkels. “Good Neighbor Agreements: a tool for environmental and social justice.” Social Justice 23(4), Winter 1996, pp134(18). Page 137.
[14] John Callewaert. “The Multiple and Competing Conceptions of Environmental Justice.” Pp. 21-40 in Global Citizen and Environmental Justice, edited by Tony Shallcross and John Robinson. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. Page 28.
[15] David Naguib Pellow. Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. Page 8. Hereinafter referred to as Pellow.
[16] Anand 28.
[17] Ibid. 63.
[18] Anand 62, and Pellow 11 (for “toxic colonialism”).
[19] Pellow 8, and Anand 64.
[20] Pellow 9.
[21] Anand 64-5.
[22] Anand 68.
[23] For more information on the Basel Ban, see Basel Action Network. Accessed March 27, 2011: (
[24] Anand 73-5.
[25] Ibid. 82.
[26] Pellow 16.
[27] Ibid. 10.
[28] Anand 73.
[29] Lidskog and Elander 33.
[30] Lucy H. Ford. “Challenging Global Environmental Governance: Social Movement Agency and Global Civil Society.” Global Environmental Politics 3:2, May 2003. Page 125. Hereinafter referred to as Ford.
[31] Ford 130.
[32] Barbara Gemmill and Abimbola Bamidele-Izu. “The Role of NGOs and Civil Society in Global Environmental Governance.” In Global Environmental Governance: Options and Opportunities, edited by D.C. Esty and M.H. Ivanova. Princeton, NJ: Yale School of Environmental Studies, 2002. Page 7.
[33] Harriet Bulkeley and Arthur P.J. Mol. "Participation and Environmental Governance: Consensus, Ambivalence and Debate." Environmental Values 12 (2003): 143-54. Page 151.

Use the following to cite this article:
Braun, Amy.. "Governance Challenges in Promoting Environmental Justice." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: May 1, 2011 <>.