In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

Click here to explore the full "Ethical Inquiry" series

Ethical Inquiry: October 2012



Should developing nations be held to the same environmental standards as already developed nations?

This summer the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, commonly referred to as  “Rio+20,” brought the issue of environmental standards for developing nations to greater international attention. World leaders came together to work on bettering the global environmental situation.

Conferences such as Rio+20 that seek to address the issues of environment and development have been taking place since 1972, when the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm and brought the industrialized and developing nations together. Since this conference much work has gone into deciding upon the environmental standards nations should be held to. In 2012, the concept of  “going green” is well known and largely thought of as the right thing to do, for a variety of reasons.

Many factors that complicate the movement towards stricter global environmental standards. How strict should environmental standards be? Who should be held accountable? Is it possible for the same standards to be applied to nations that are drastically different? Does the divide in opinions on environmental standards and policies reflect a “North-South divide?”

These questions are only a few of the many that the international community is divided on.

In this “Ethical Inquiry” we explore the question of whether it is right to hold both already developed and currently developing nations to the same environmental standards. What expectations are fair for developing countries?

Related questions will be raised during “National Cohesion in Insecure States: Experiences from Africa” the Distinguished Visiting Practitioner Residency at Brandeis University of Michel Noureddine Kassa, Country Team Leader for the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from October 15-19.

Understanding the perspective that all nations should be held to the same environmental standards

If the already developed nations and those currently developing have differences in their role in the current environmental situation and their capacity to enforce new environmental standards, how can it be argued that all nations and markets should be held to the same environmental standards? 


Some opponents of equal environmental standards for developing nations believe that while nations are still in the process of developing, they should be given a lag period of unsustainable actions similar to that of the industrialized nations. Agus Sari of Energy and Resources Group at University of California Berkeley states “In the long term, there should be commitments for the developing countries...[but first] they should be given the same lag period of industrialized countries for acting towards reducing their emissions after reaching their equal share of emissions.”

Proponents of equal environmental standards for developing nations contest ideas such as Sari’s that development can be unsustainable now and go green later. They cite the urgency of the current global environmental situation as the reason strict enforcement of environmental standards cannot wait.

Along with this sense of urgency to correct the current environmental degradation is the argument that to better the environmental situation work must be done by all nations, not only those that are already developed

The argument is also made that if developing nations are not held to strict environmental standards now, they will develop their infrastructure around unsustainable practices. As nations are quickly developing, much of their infrastructure will be built in the near future. Thus, to prevent the locking-in of outdated environmental actions, strict and equal environmental standards must be enforced internationally

Differing standards would create havens for unsustainability

Those that support equal enforcement of environmental standards for developed and developing nations warn that if unequal standards and policies were in place, developing nations could become havens for pollution and other unsustainable and environmentally damaging activities.

Populations of developing nations are in even more need of environmental protection than those of the developed world

In a report by the Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is argued that “the potential economic and social impacts of environmental degradation are particularly serious for developing countries given their dependence on natural resources for economic growth and their vulnerability to energy, food, water security, climate change and extreme weather risks.”

Populations in developing nations are more reliant upon, connected to and impacted by the environment than populations in the developed world. The most at-risk populations for negative impacts from environmental degradation are the rural poor of developing nations. Proponents of equal environmental standards for developing nations argue that it is in the best interest of developing nations to put in place strict environmental policies in order to best protect their populations.

Understanding the perspective that developing nations should not be held to the same environmental standards

Two of the most commonly referenced arguments made by those opposing equal environmental standards for developing nations are that developing nations 1) have more pressing concerns than environmental impact and 2) would suffer negative economic impacts as a result of stricter standards. Also, many argue that the already-developed nations bear more responsibility to act to help the environment than currently developing nations because of greater historic responsibility and greater current capacity.

Developing nations have more pressing concerns

The OECD report “Green Growth and Developing Countries” states “developing countries are preoccupied with the concerns of providing basic education, food security and delivering essential services such as water supply and sanitation.” For a developing nation it is more important and pressing to provide basic living standards than to work on improving their environmental practices. Developing nations face different and often times more difficult decisions than those that are already developed when it comes to implementing green policies. Nations have to carefully work to balance the needs of their citizens with environmental actions, and cannot afford to have the same levels of environmental standards as nations that do not have to worry about providing basic necessities.

Impact on trade

Martin Khor, Executive Director of the South Centre, states that a vocal concern of developing nations’ governments is that strict environmental standards could negatively impact their developing markets and therefore be a set-back to development. He notes that many developing countries suspect the developed world’s stricter green standards for products could lead to the products from developing countries being excluded from trade for not being considered “green.” Developing nations are at a clear disadvantage for greening their products due to a lack of financial resources and technology 


Is it possible for developing nations to enforce higher environmental standards? Some say the rift between nations’ opinions on environmental standards is in part, an issue of different levels of development and capacity.

André Corrêa de Lago, the chief climate negotiator for the G77+China, the UN grouping of developing countries, said, “We are convinced we cannot be compared to countries that have financial and technical circumstances that are more important than ours”. He is one of many who cite developing nations’ lesser levels of financial and technological capability as justification for more lax environmental standards than those of developed nations.
Historic Responsibility

The issue of “historic responsibility” is one of the points that developed nations and those still developing are most divided on. Some see the global environmental decline as the fault of the industrialized and developed nations, and argue that since the developed nations created the problem, those nations should work to solve the issue.

Others argue that equal environmental standards should be in place because despite the historical impact of the industrialized nations on the environment, currently developing nations have also negatively contributed to the environment through high populations draining resources, and weaker infrastructure and regulations resulting in heavy pollution. 

Final Thoughts

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, progress was made with the creation of the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. The principle “recognizes historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to global environmental problems, and differences in their respective economic and technical capacity to tackle these problems.” However arguments continue to be made over environmental standards in the international political arena.

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding international environmental standards? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by  Shelby Magid, '15, a member of the 2013 'DEIS Impact festival of social justice core organizing committee, the "'DEIS Impacters."