Three distinct but overlapping policy objectives have influenced environmental policy, structures and processes in contemporary large South African cities: sustainable development, environmental justice and adapting and mitigating for climate change. These goals have been characterized here as three waves of urban environmental policy. This paper responds to the position that sustainability, justice and climate change interventions must be aligned. Despite the global and national commitment to this objective, evidence suggests that environmental injustices and a lack of environmental sustainability persist in all three waves, in spite of policy efforts. What's more is that these disjunctures are not confined to South Africa, or even the global south, but are experienced globally. The wisdom behind calls for aligning these objectives is therefore questioned through a review that illustrates that despite apparent similarities between the objective of addressing environment and development concerns, the motivations behind the three waves are distinct, as are the governance arrangements and structures and tools for implementation. By focusing on the distinctions between these three modes of environmental governance, this review provides a nuanced perspective on what it means to govern the environment at the urban scale.