Despite any claims in the press, nothing new has progressed in international environmental law for a few decades. Activity has been focused on fine tuning the existing agreements. Now moves are afoot to finally grant Earth a right to survival.
Actually, international environmental governance and law haven’t been around for that long. A few treaties pre-date the 1970s but focused environmental governance began in 1972 with the Stockholm Declaration, when governments recognised that biological diversity is a global asset for present and future generations–that Earth’s biological resources are vital to humanity’s economic and social development. Following from this foundation declaration, there was a mushrooming of treaties and agreements in the 70s and 80s, all seeking to address specific areas that threaten Earth’s biological heritage.
There are now over 500 international treaties dealing with the environment. Many of these are small, or regionally specific. Most have a distinct focus, like banning the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere, combatting wildlife trade or reducing the impact of shipping. The last major step was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. This new treaty was intended as the unifier–the rallying point around which everything else would spin. But, CBD blended into the crowd, and since 1992 nothing new has come along to energise the governance arena again.
This is not to suggest that no attention has been directed to managing the environmental commons. There is a regular flurry of diplomatic activity focused on tuning the existing agreements about specific issues. Even the much heralded Paris Agreement on Climate Change is progress against a programme that was established many decades ago. Meetings are held, small progress steps are made, but there is no vigour in the system. Meanwhile, the threats to species and ecosystems have never been so great. Species extinctions, caused by human activities, continue at an alarming rate.
All of the 500 environmental treaties have been hard won. The detail each contains is important–the world is a complicated place and cannot to be managed with simplistic motherhood statements. But governments are not bound by them–they can abide or ignore them as they please. Despite the effort that went into their creation, they are often referred to as ‘soft law’ because they don’t have any legally binding force.
Still, the 500 treaties exist and for the past decade or so governments have complained that the field is now too crowded, complicated, and reporting to them all is duplicated effort. In part they are right. It has become complicated, and there is a lot of wasted energy, especially when it becomes apparent how many reports confirm no progress has been made, nothing has changed. To calm the disquiet, the UN General Assembly elevated the United Nations Environment Programme, giving it greater impetus through a new United National Environment Assembly (UNEA). The idea is for UNEA to be a focal point for addressing important issues from different perspectives. For instance, UNEA3 taking place in November 2017 will focus on pollution in all its forms.
Elevating UNEP and creating UNEA is still yet another incremental step. It does nothing new. It just helps to better focus the old. The biggest problem is that governments don’t pay attention to the 500 environmental treaties, favouring trade, defence and economic growth instead.
A few months ago something new was born. Still in its infancy, a new Global Pact for the Environment is proposed to bring soft environmental law into the realm of hard law. If the UN General Assembly adopts the Pact hard law teeth will be given to the existing environment treaties. The Pact will become a unifying legal document to sit over the complicated detail of the 500 treaties. Suddenly, international environmental law will have coherence because everyone will be paying attention.
If it survives to maturity, the Pact will do more. It will also establish principles that compel States and other legal persons to protect the environment, promote sustainable development and intergenerational equity, and ensure the right of access to information and environmental justice.
If the Pact is adopted by the United Nations, environmental rights will have legal and binding power.
For the first time, humans will have agreed that Earth and all her inhabitants have a right to survival. That is something worth fighting for!