The well-known environmental principle of Sustainable Development as defined in the Brundtland Report makes room for ambiguity and questions the fundamental idea of ‘Why does this generation get to decide the future generation’s consumption standards of world’s natural resources?’. This intergenerational disparity needs attention to ensure there is an equitable distribution of wealth in a just and fair manner. The value idea that focuses on the rights of the future generations emanating in this backdrop is the principle of intergenerational equity.
What is equity?
Before delving into the nuances of intergenerational equity, there is a prerequisite to understand the difference between equity and equality for they are an alliteration used interchangeably, despite them not being so. While equality emphasises on treating everybody the same way, equity involves an ethical component of treating everybody fair and just. In other words, equity aims to satisfy the needs of individuals based on their socio-economic status, while equality aims to treat everybody in the same manner irrespective of external factors like socio-economic status.
Intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability
Intergenerational equity refers to satisfying the needs of every generation in terms of economic, psychological, and sociological contexts in a fair manner. (Summers & Smith, 2014) From an environmental perspective, intergenerational equity provides the principles to preserve the natural resources and environment for the benefit of the future generations. (Venn, 2019) . This is the aspect of environmental sustainability as propounded in the Brundtland Report which aimed to address intergenerational inequity in order to ensure that the present and future generations have equal accessibility to environmental resources.
In the Indian landscape, several Supreme Court judgements recognise the significance of sustainable development and intergenerational equity. In the writ petition, State of Himachal Pradesh v Ganesh Wood Products (1995), the Apex court observed that the present generation has no right to interfere with the safety of the future generation by highlighting the duty of every citizen to protect and preserve the environment. (State of Himachal Pradesh and Others (Appellants) V. Ganesh Wood Products and Others (Respondents) | UNEP Law and Environment Assistance Platform, n.d.). The matter essentially involved the Government of Himachal Pradesh refusing the establishment of a wood factory that proposed to run the business by felling khair trees for raw materials. The court found merits on the Government’s part and restricted the establishment of factories on the grounds that it will adversely impact the ecology and environment of the region.
In S. Jagannath v Union of India (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that all industries prior receiving permission to establish the business, must undergo Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) taking into account the intergenerational equity in order to ensure the future is not devoid of the natural resources (S. Jagannath V. Union of India & Ors | UNEP Law and Environment Assistance Platform, n.d.). Two year post the above judgement, in A.P. Pollution Control Board v Prof, M.V. Nayudu, Justice Jagganda Rao starts the order by quoting A. Fritsch, “The basic insight of ecology is that all living things exist in interrelated systems; nothing exists in isolation. The world system is weblike; to pluck one strand is to cause all to vibrate; whatever happens to one part has ramifications for all the rest. Our actions are not individual but social; they reverberate throughout the whole ecosystem” (1994 (3) SCC 1). The court traced the entire significance of the principle of intergenerational equity by referring to the Stockholm Declaration among others to reiterate that the environment is to be viewed as a resource basis for the survival of the present and future generations, whereby the present have no overbearing right over the future. (AP Pollution Control Board V. Prof. MV Nayudu (Retd.), n.d.)
Environmental dynamics cannot be substituted by human capital
Taking account of intergenerational equity paves the way for a strong sustainable model. Within the environmental system, there are social and economic components which work hand-in-hand, implying that human capital cannot substitute the environmental resources. Contrarily, the view of weak sustainability assumes that there is substitutability between human and natural capital, suggesting that depletion of environmental resources can be offset by human capital. If the latter is incorporated into the system, it may lead to exploitation of the resources today and leave the future generation with the burden of finding substitutes to natural processes which may not even exist.
It is vital to understand that there are certain processes such as ozone layer formation and the carbon cycle in nature that cannot be replaced or substituted with any man-made services. The human actions of the past, the emission of greenhouse gases from commercial activities led to the hole in the ozone layer. The absence of the ozone layer will make the existence of life precarious on Earth. It is the present generation confronted with the task of finding sustainable alternatives and initiatives to protect the ozone for their survival with icebergs melting away and heatwaves engulfing cities. The same will continue into the future, if the present generation does not respect and acknowledge the rights of the future generations.
The environment as an entity has a function beyond merely providing resources needed for development. They help the overall balance in the global ecological cycle and ensure the stability in the chain reactions. If the balance is disrupted, it may cause severe alterations in the global ecological cycle impacting the life system of the planet. The equity across generations needs protections of these natural processes and a balance in the critical levels of the cycles to ensure there is an overall balance in the ecological cycle. (Padilla, 2002). The presence of a weak sustainable model in the present day-and-age might impact the future generations in contravention to the intergenerational equity principle. Maintaining a strong sustainable model does not necessarily discourage green innovation altogether, but rather they can supplement the natural processes. This way, intergenerational equity can be established whereby the action of today’s generation does not negatively impact the future.
AP Pollution Control Board v. Prof. MV Nayudu (Retd.). (n.d.). InforMEA. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.informea.org/en/court-decision/ap-pollution-control-board-v-prof-mv-nayudu-retd
Padilla, E. (2002). Intergenerational equity and sustainability. Ecological Economics, 41(1), 69-83. 10.1016/s0921-8009(02)00026-5
S. Jagannath v. Union of India & Ors | UNEP Law and Environment Assistance Platform. (n.d.). UNEP’s Law and Environment Assistance Platform (UNEP-LEAP). Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://leap.unep.org/countries/in/national-case-law/s-jagannath-v-union-india-ors
State of Himachal Pradesh and others (Appellants) v. Ganesh Wood Products and others (Respondents) | UNEP Law and Environment Assistance Platform. (n.d.). UNEP’s Law and Environment Assistance Platform (UNEP-LEAP). Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://leap.unep.org/countries/in/national-case-law/state-himachal-pradesh-and-others-appellants-v-ganesh-wood-products
Summers, J. K., & Smith, L. M. (2014, January 9). The Role of Social and Intergenerational Equity in Making Changes in Human Well-Being Sustainable. NCBI, 43(6), 718-728. 10.1007/s13280-013-0483-6
Venn, A. (2019). Social justice and climate change. In Managing Global Warming: An Interface of Technology and Human Issues (pp. 711-728). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-814104-5.00024-7