Erik Paredis, Ghent University, explained that the concept of “ecological debt” was originally coined by Latin American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the early 1990s, and refers to the ecological damage caused by industrialized countries in developing countries and/or to the use of ecosystems and ecosystem services at the expense of developing countries. Noting that the concept is almost exclusively used by NGOs, particularly in developing countries, and that scientific research on this topic has been limited, he outlined his research project that aims to, inter alia, clarify the concept, develop methodologies for calculating ecological debt, and assess its political implications.
Paredis emphasized that the definition of ecological debt should take into account that, through the process of accumulating wealth, countries cause ecological damage elsewhere and use ecosystem services, thereby limiting the possible use of these services by others. He drew attention to other considerations, such as: defining equitable rights; determining the debtors and creditors; and deciding whether to use physical or monetary quantifications. Paredis concluded that the concept of ecological debt may add a meaningful new dimension to the North-South sustainability debate, and could have political implications for Kyoto Protocol commitments after 2012.
Discussing ecological debt in the context of global climate change, Bernard Mazijn, Ghent University, drew attention to the ecological damage caused by fossil fuels, as well as the exploitation of ecosystem goods at the expense of the equitable rights of others. He noted the complexity of defining equitable rights and absolute levels of sustainability.
Introducing the concepts of historical and generational carbon debt, Mazijn concluded that developed counties should recognize and compensate for their carbon debt.
Frank Maes, Ghent University, noted that although there are no direct references to ecological debt in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), several MEAs contain indirect references, such as the principle of intra and intergenerational equity, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, the Kyoto Protocol’s Adaptation Fund, and equitable benefit sharing under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Observing that there is a lack of political support to introduce the concept of ecological debt into international law, he concluded that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the polluter pays principle seem, for the moment, to be the most suitable principles to provide a legal basis for ecological debt.