Developed countries like the UK benefit from the use of more natural resources and environmental services than is either ecologically sustainable or arguably, especially in light of global inequalities, their du e share. From the perspective of developing countries, we can be accused of running an ‘ecological debt’. Such accusations may scarcely be heeded at present, but as global competition for available natural resources and environmental services intensifies, and some of the largest Newly Industrialising Countries become serious power rivals, concerns about the injustice of current usage are liable to be compounded by security concerns. Therefore prudence combines with ethics to commend preparing to address them.
Allegations of ecological debt can be understood as claims that there is an unjust distribution of rights in the planet’s various natural resources and environmental services. The allocation of rights is certainly haphazard: international law accommodates an array of property and sovereignty rights which have arisen historically as products of unregulated exploitation, wars, colonialism, power politics, ad hoc negotiations, and, in the best of cases, multilateral treaty agreements. Meanwhile, as international institutions create new rights - for example, carbon emissions rights or intellectual property rights in genetic resources - old rights, and particularly rights of territorial sovereignty, are being significantly modified. How just these regimes are, individually and in the aggregate, is the central question for assessing allegations of ecological debt.