[Interview] Joyeeta Gupta: The Indian voice for environmental justice at global platforms

Joyeeta Gupta speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by World Economic Forum - Jakob Polacsek/ Flickr.
  • In June, the Netherlands Scientific Organization awarded Joyeeta Gupta the Spinoza prize, considered the highest distinction in the Netherlands, for science.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Gupta says environmental problems are the direct fallout of our flawed development goals and if the focus stays on increasing GDP for nations and profits for companies, they will continue to externalise social and environmental problems.
  • She bats for a global constitution with stronger laws to protect the human rights of the marginalised and for tougher social and environmental impact assessments, and laws requiring higher social and environmental standards.

When the Earth Commission released its third paper on earth system boundaries in 2023, one element stood out as distinct — the introduction of “justice” into the definition of planetary boundaries. The efforts of professor of environment and development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam, Joyeeta Gupta, who spearheaded the move, were widely appreciated.

Gupta has been a voice for social and environmental justice in various global platforms including the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 which subsequently shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Al Gore. She is also co-chair of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook-6 and a member of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, apart from being the co-chair of the Earth Commission. In June 2023, the Netherlands Scientific Organization awarded her with the Spinoza prize (€1.5 million), considered the highest distinction in the Netherlands, for science.

Gupta’s tryst with social justice began as an employee at the Consumer Education and Research Centre in Ahmedabad while being a student in law and economics. Later, as an Inlaks scholar at Harvard, she pursued her masters in law. Her work on the dumping of hazardous waste in the Global South at the International Organization of Consumers Unions in The Hague took her to the Netherlands where she met her partner.

Having not studied Dutch law, her decision to stay in the Netherlands to be with her husband challenged her to reinvent herself. She pursued her PhD at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and worked there as the professor of climate change policy and law, as well as on water law and policy until she moved to the University of Amsterdam as professor of environment and development in the Global South.

Joyeeta Gupta spearheaded the move to introduce “justice” into the definition of planetary boundaries. Photo from Joyeeta Gupta.

Gupta shares her thoughts with Mongabay-India about the various environmental challenges the world is facing and why equitable sharing of the earth is important to address them.

Mongabay: The main focus of your work has been on the equitable sharing of the earth. You are an advocate of stronger laws to make this possible. You talk about the need for a “global constitution”. Could you elaborate? How does this play out in a country like India with a burgeoning population that shares limited resources?

Joyeeta Gupta: There are limited resources on the earth and there are limits to how much we can pollute it. These limits are both global and local. We have already crossed many of these limits. Eighty-six percent of the world population lives in areas where at least two boundaries have been crossed. At the same time, millions of people lack access to basic resources such as clean water, fertile land, etc. Meeting the needs of these people would lead to further crossing the earth system boundaries. However, they only use about as much as the top one to four percent of humans (do). And millions, who are not necessarily the cause of the pollution, are exposed to polluted air and water, and the impacts of climate change. This means that some people grossly overuse the earth’s resources, leaving very little for others or worse still, polluting the earth.

I believe that stronger laws that protect the human rights of people are needed to enable those who have been marginalised so far to escape from poverty and live healthy. At the same time, laws are needed to ensure (that) standards for pollution are not only set but implemented. This needs to happen at a local to global level.

Since my focus is on earth system boundaries and earth system justice and we live in a globalised world, I think we need to work towards a global constitution. Such a constitution can be positive for India. It will uphold values that we all hold dear — human rights protections and not causing harm to others. It may help India avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But it will also imply that within India, there needs to be much more care taken to share resources between people, communities and states. If not, most people in India will not be able to afford the rising prices of water, food, and energy and, at the same time, be exposed to the impacts of growing air and water pollution and land degradation.

Mongabay: What are the challenges plaguing climate justice today? How do we make the consequences of climate change even? You said in an interview that power structures enjoy the status quo. At the same time, change cannot happen without the participation of these power structures.

Joyeeta Gupta: Anyone who has paid any attention to science on climate change will know that fossil fuels have to be phased out. Yet fossil fuel companies and governments worldwide are embedded within a petro-culture that seems to think that we can endlessly delay this phaseout. This is too risky — the impacts of climate change on our cities, let alone on our farmers, are already negative and will become worse. Politicians have to rise above being focused on short-term GDP to becoming statesmen and women focused on long-term human wellbeing. Social movements have to demand such change; only then will power structures change. And we will need multi-level justice narratives to ensure that at all levels of governance, those who are more responsible for causing the problem and those who have broader shoulders bear the costs.

Mongabay: You’re a part of the Earth Commission. It is the first time that a justice component was added to the larger discourse of planetary boundaries. How do countries implement this? Is there a step-by-step process? How much should richer countries contribute to making earth-sharing a level-playing field?

Joyeeta Gupta: The safe and just boundaries defined by the Earth Commission aim to enhance discussion about the need for protecting humans and nature. Countries need to engage with the idea and perhaps refine them; there needs to be much more debate about how we depend on our natural resources. I think the first hurdle was getting something like this published in Nature. Such integrated social and natural science pieces that account for justice are relatively new and even the Nature editor entitles her editorial as, “Why ideas of ‘planetary boundaries’ must uphold environmental justice”

We have not gone so far as to define a step-by-step process for individual countries, but that could be a possible follow-up step. In terms of sharing, it is not just rich countries but rich people who have to start sharing. For rich people, I think it is critical that we push for tax justice and ensure that tax evasion and avoidance loopholes are closed as far as possible and that people do not go to tax havens. For rich countries that overuse their resources, the first challenge is to see if they can reduce their resource use substantially. The second challenge is to understand how responsibility for harm caused to others can be allocated.

Mongabay: You are also a part of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report says that nine of the 10 biggest risks for the next decade have a water-related component. Water, a contentious resource, doesn’t feature prominently in international dialogues. Why? How do you envision justice in the context of water conservation, sharing and use?

Joyeeta Gupta: This is a very big question. The Global Commission is still undertaking its work, so I am not going to speak on behalf of it. For myself, I think each country has to be very careful about how it uses its surface water and groundwater resources. Transboundary water sharing has been very contentious for a long time, but ultimately if we don’t share these water resources with each other and with nature, we all lose. The UN Watercourses Convention has set out some very good ideas about how to share water between countries. It’s a pity few countries have ratified it. But I think that justice issues in water could very easily build on this document. Ultimately, we have to share water between administrative levels (national to local), across boundaries (upstream, downstream), between uses (agriculture, industry), between users (between rich and poor), and between us and nature.

Jute farming in West Bengal. Photo by Dipayan Bose/Climate Visuals Countdown.

Mongabay: Covid-19 was a watershed moment that exposed various inequalities in the world including generational injustice humans inflicted on other sentient beings. Do current global biodiversity frameworks like 30X30 address this inequity adequately? Do you have better suggestions?

Joyeeta Gupta: The current biodiversity framework has made huge advances, but it is still not strong enough. I think that climate change, biodiversity loss and land and water degradation are all results of the way in which we have designed the goals for our development. As long as the focus is on increasing GDP for nations and profits for companies, nations and companies will continue to externalise social and environmental problems and discount the future. The only way to address this is through much stronger social and environmental impact assessments, and laws requiring higher social and environmental standards (e.g. to protect miners, and workers, and limit pollution), that limit the scope within which companies function. But if companies are rich and can easily evade and avoid taxes, this makes them very powerful actors who can influence democratic processes that lead to strong regulation. Social movements have to demand tax justice, ensure that revolving door strategies are ended and that societies can and want to address the growing pollution of our resources.

Mongabay: Covid-19 also worsened the economic situation of various countries. You have some interesting views regarding a better taxation system to tide over financial and other precarities that would hamper climate change mitigation efforts, especially transitioning to renewable energies that demand larger budgets. Could you elaborate on this, especially in the case of developing nations like India?

Joyeeta Gupta: I think globally there are enough financial resources. The question is how we can use these resources for improving the lives of all. Inequality between the richest and poorest globally, but also in countries like India, is a big challenge. Such inequality also implies a huge power differential in societies. Tax justice is the only way to address this and this needs to be done in all countries to ensure that companies do not move to tax havens.

Mongabay: You were a part of the IPCC in 2007 that shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Al Gore. How do you see climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts changed/evolved since then? What are the newer concerns?

Joyeeta Gupta: I think climate change mitigation is the best adaptation strategy. If we don’t mitigate rapidly, there will be an adaptation bill for centuries to come. The need to focus on phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, on demand side management, and on reinvigorating good quality public transport systems cannot be overemphasised. I think this growing need is reflected in recent years in some of the scholarships. Unfortunately, the delay in mitigation action worldwide has made adaptation also very important and there is growing demand for payments for loss and damage. The question is how can this be organised globally in a way that we can solve both problems equitably. The fear is that developing countries may follow in the footsteps of Global North and go in for fossil fuel development instead of more friendly alternatives. We need more compact cities, not sprawling metropolises, in order to make space for nature, but also have good quality public transport systems and reduce our energy demands.

Metro train in Chennai. Photo by VtTN/ Wikimedia Commons.
Metro train in Chennai. Gupta argues that India needs more compact cities that have good quality public transport systems. Photo by VtTN/ Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: Different kinds of economies are being discussed now in the context of sustainability. You are not a big supporter of the circular economy. You are also a critic of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Could you explain why? What according to you is the most sustainable economic model? I’m also curious to know what you think of the wellbeing economy countries such as Bhutan have been famously implementing.

Joyeeta Gupta: I worry that a circular economy will not be enough. Energy cannot be circulated; it dissipates. Food circulation is also very difficult. There are limits to the amount of time metals and minerals can be recycled. Even though there is growing talk about the circular economy, and this is a must, globally, we continue to take out more and more virgin resources and continue to pollute nature. All this means that the more wealthy among us need to drastically reduce their consumption of goods and services.

Let’s look more closely at GDP. If people fall sick from air pollution and go to the hospital and pay their bills, it is good for GDP. If people buy air purifiers, this is good for GDP. But this is crazy. We had clean air to begin with and someone has profited through the production of goods and services or private transport use at the cost of polluting the air that affects especially the homeless.

Clean air was a free service of nature. So the increase in GDP does not include the loss in wellbeing and welfare for those who cannot afford health care, for the unnecessary use of minerals, metals, and energy in the new air purifiers. This is just an example. GDP does not include the costs of polluting the environment and the ensuing damage to humans and other living beings. There are many other indicators being developed by scholars. Many visions of wellbeing economies, ubuntu, buen vivir, etc. are being proposed in the literature. The challenge I see is how do we move from the current situation where GDP rules to a new equilibrium. My proposal is that we need to move away from deregulation towards regulation. We need to have strong regulation that protects access to minimum resources and services for all irrespective of whether people can afford that. And we need to regulate the environment properly. We need a clear separation of the judiciary, legislature and executive to ensure that they can function independently of politics and power. Stronger regulation and better systems of cross-subsidies financed by tax justice approaches are needed.

Read more: [Interview] IPCC author Aditi Mukherji on energy transition in agriculture and water security


Banner image: Joyeeta Gupta speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by World Economic Forum – Jakob Polacsek/ Flickr.

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