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The concept of sustainability, or sustainable development, articulated in the 1987 Brundtland Report has, since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, legitimated what Steven Bernside calls the ‘compromise of liberal environmentalism’.[1] This normative paradigm treats environmental protection as compatible with, and often premised upon, the continuation of economic growth, the promotion of a market economy and a liberal international order. More recently, this paradigm is arguably being superseded by a rhetorical focus on building a ‘green economy’ which goes beyond sustainability in that being ‘green’ is no longer presented as a matter of responsibility but one of profitability and competitiveness in the future economy.

What has been foregrounded is a specific understanding of sustainability that is compatible with economic imperatives ‘in which nature, or the environment, is seen as being like a capital stock, and the responsibility of sustainability, in turn is an injunction to maintain intact the value of an “appropriately defined” stock of natural capital’.[2] Taking this further, the promotion of a ‘green economy’ has intensified the monetary valuation of nature – now reinscribed as ‘natural capital’ – alongside the  monetary valuation of ecosystem services. In this sense the politics of sustainability has been used to legitimate the further marketization, commodification and financialization, to ostensibly address ecological crisis.

It is worth highlighting how this approach differs from other visions of global environmental politics, such as that articulated in the 1974 Cocoyac Declaration, which infused with ideas from the New International Economic Order, clearly stated that the environmental problems ‘cannot be left to the automatic operation of market mechanisms’ and highlighted the need to challenge ‘unequal economic relationships’ in order to create a system more capable of ‘meeting the “inner limits” of basic human needs for all the world’s people … without violating the “outer limits” of the planet’s resources and environment’.[3] Sustainability politics has evaded questions of redistribution or addressing the way the global economy continually produces inequalities.

In this post I argue we need to critically examine and unravel how the politics of sustainability has both been constrained by economic imperatives and used to legitimate the further expansion of economic logics. The duel paradox of the current international legal order are that currently global economic law is directed towards sustaining the viability of a fossil-fuel driven capitalism that is driving irreversible ecological harm, while concurrently, international environmental law, which is supposed to protect the natural world, has been constrained, by being made subject to economic imperatives of cost-efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In striving for a more sustainable global economic law, it is thus both these dynamics – economic law sustaining of ecologically harmful activities and environmental law being constrained by economic imperatives – which need to be contested in order to build ecologically just futures.

Climate Change and the Challenge of Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground

These two dynamics, namely that economic law sustains ecologically harmful activities, while environmental law is constrained by economic imperatives, are evident in international climate policy. Problematically, both these dynamics, in different ways, produce to the same result, namely the protection of the value of fossil fuel assets.

There has been growing attention recently to how international economic law sustains investor expectations by protecting the value of fossil fuel assets that otherwise risk becoming “stranded assets” by allowing companies to bring claims against countries for decarbonisation policies that would devalue or make worthless fossil fuel infrastructures. Such legal actions risks making it more costly for countries’ to transition their economies and could have a chilling effort on the global energy transition.

However, what has been less examined is how the imperatives of economic efficiency and cost-effectiveness have constrained international climate regulation, in ways that similarly protect the value of fossil fuel assets. The imperatives of economic efficiency and cost-effectiveness have explicitly included in key international climate agreements, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. However, these imperatives have perhaps been even more effective in delimiting the forms of climate action that are considered socially possible shaping the contours of social debates on what sort of regulatory action is possible or desirable. Economic cost benefit analysis has been extensively deployed in debates over what level of warming is “economically optimal” – Norhaus famously proposing 3.5ºC – and to determine the quality and type of emissions reductions that should be taken.

Perhaps most problematic is how these assumptions of economic cost-effectiveness have shaped the work undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, specifically their climate modelling, which has a huge influence on climate policies around the world. Climate models explicitly ‘tend towards normative, economics-focused descriptions of the future’ and focus on ‘minimiz[ing] aggregate economic costs of achieving mitigation outcomes, unless they are specifically constrained to behave otherwise’.[4]  These parameters and the concern with optimised, cost-effective scenario curtained the modelling undertaken to such an extent that the for a long time very few scenarios were compatible with limiting warming to 2 degree Celsius.[5] However, as in the lead up to the Paris Agreement political pressure to commit to a limiting warming to 2 degree Celsius increased, as well as pressure to commit to ‘pursing efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degree’. The way modellers sought to manage these demands to simultaneously model more ambitious climate action whilst continuing to maintain the economic assumptions that structured these models was to introduce negative emissions into projections. Wim Carton argues that “[negative emissions technologies] were mainstreamed in [integrated assessment models] in order to square the request of policy makers (i.e. to provide 2ºC pathways) with the specific economic framework within which these models operate”.[6] Yet, although almost all mainstream climate models rely on negative emissions technologies, such technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) remain highly speculative, untested and unproven at the scale.[7]

Even if these technologies might never be able to be actualised in practice, the inclusion of negative emissions in climate models has real effects in the present. As Wim Carton powerfully writes:

In this sense it is not just weak climate policy that is being maintained by the invocation of negative emissions, but crucially also the carbon-intensive economic processes that it is supposed to regulate. What is being sustained and legitimised in this broader sense is a regime of capital accumulation centred around the continued use of fossil fuels, at the precise moment when it is facing a legitimacy crisis due to increasing social concerns for climate change.[8]

Thus, we have the perverse situation where both the way in which economic law sustains ecologically harmful activities and the way in which environmental law is constrained by economic imperatives leads to the same result: the continue legitimation and enabling of fossil fuel driven capital accumulation. It is urgently necessary to contest both how economic law sustains ecologically harmful activities, by sustaining the value of assets, sustaining the investor expectations and sustaining the conditions for ongoing accumulation, as well as how environmental law is constrained by economic imperatives, given that both these dynamics are blocking the sort of action that is currently needed, namely the drastic devaluation of the types of activities – especially fossil fuel extraction and combustion – that are driving the planet to the brink of ecological collapse.

[1] S. Bernstein, The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism (Colombia University Press, 2001).

[2] E. Rothschild, ‘Maintaining (environmental) capital intact’ (2011) 8 Modern Intellectual History 193–212 at 193–94.

[3] K. Mickelson, ‘The Stockholm Conference and the Creation of the South-North Divide in International Environmental Law and Policy’ in S. Alam, S. Atapattu, C. G. Gonzalez, J. Razzaque (eds.), International Environmental Law and the Global South, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 109–29.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, 422 cited in W. Carton, ‘“Fixing” climate change by mortgaging the future: negative emissions, spatiotemporal fixes, and the political economy of delay’ (2019) 51 Antipode 750–69 at 761.

[5] W. Carton, ‘Carbon unicorns and fossil futures. Whose emission reduction pathway is the IPCC performing?’ in J. P. Sapinski, H. J. Buck, A. Malm (eds.), Has It Come to This?: The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink, (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[6] Carton, ‘Carbon unicorns and fossil futures. Whose emission reduction pathway is the IPCC performing?’.

[7] K. Dooley, P. Christoff, and K. A. Nicholas, ‘Co-producing climate policy and negative emissions: trade-offs for sustainable land-use’ (2018) 1 Global Sustainability.

[8] Carton, ‘“Fixing” climate change by mortgaging the future: negative emissions, spatiotemporal fixes, and the political economy of delay’, 759.

(Photo: Eutah Mizushima)