The concept of'environmental space' was first developed in the 1980s as an academic concept. It was mentioned as 'environmental utilization space' by Siebert in 1982 and Opschoor in 1987. According to Opschoor, ''the 'environmental utilization space' reflects that at any given point in time, there are limits to the amount of environmental pressure that the Earth's ecosystems can handle without irreversible damage to these systems or to the life-support processes that they enable.'' The 'environmental utilization space' consists of both 'stocks' (renewable, semirenewable, and nonrenewable resources) and 'sinks' (capacity to absorb human impacts).

At the beginning of the 1990s, environmental NGOs, such as the Friends of the Earth, started using this concept to advocate sustainable development, following the UNCED Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Friends of the Earth Netherlands published the document Action Plan for Sustainable Netherlands in 1992, which included the quantification of the 'environmental space' for some major resources that will be available to each Dutchman in 2010. The following year, Friends of the Earth Europe published Towards Sustainable Europe. This document entailed a quantification of the environmental space at European level.

During the 10 years after Rio 92, the use of the 'environmental space' concept was flourishing as a useful instrument to monitor sustainable development. The most important contribution of the concept is the provision of a method for policy planning. Many countries have used this method to set targets for their national action plans and to set a quantitative basis for the dialog between the North and the South on sustainable development.

Until now, the environmental space concept is still used in formulated targets for plans and programs toward sustainable development. However, more focus gradually shifts to the mechanisms to ensure 'equitable distribution' of resources. In this context, a set of related concepts are gaining momentum, especially in the political dialog. They include 'ecological debt', 'environmental justice', and 'sustainable production and consumption'.

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