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Current global environmental law and policy are failing, experts say

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IMAGE: Environmental Policy and Law special issue – Our Earth Matters: Pathways to a Better Common Environmental Future. “We need to accept with all humility our sacred duty for the care,… view more 

Credit: IOS Press

Amsterdam, June 2, 2021 – On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm conference that created the United Nations Environmental Programme, it is clear that the global environmental situation has only deteriorated. In “Our Earth Matters: Pathways to a Better Common Environmental Future,” an extended special issue of Environmental Policy and Law (EPL), leading scholars from more than five continents call for an honest introspection of what has been attained over the last 50 years relating to regulatory processes and laws and explore future trajectories with new ideas and frameworks for environmental governance in the 21st century.

“Our objective is to fire the imaginations of scholars and decision-makers to re-examine current approaches and to explore the future, with new tools, ideas, ecological frameworks, and new international environmental institutions,” explains Guest Editor Bharat H. Desai, PhD, LLM, Professor of International Law and Jawaharlal Nehru Chair in International Environmental Law, Centre for International Legal Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Contributors to the first section of the special issue review some of the structural problems of environmental law in the Anthropocene era, an era of significant human impact on the environment, and predict what frameworks and solutions will be necessary in the future. “Nations are not acting as if they are governing in the Anthropocene epoch, not yet,” warns Nicholas A. Robinson, JD, Pace University School of Law, New York; Executive Governor, International Council of Environmental Law. “More than just air pollution and the loss of natural resources, future policies must cope with threats from cyber wars, nuclear war, genetic mutations, and artificial intelligence. International law will have to be more ambitious, taking advantage of cutting-edge science.”

The next section explores international law-making processes, outlining current shortcomings and proposing possible frameworks for the future. Observing that current approaches seek to minimize economic impact at the expense of environmental protection, Jorge E. Viñuales, PhD, LLM, University of Cambridge, notes that, “The scale and urgency of the unfolding environmental crisis has made the critique of this hierarchy (economy over environmental protection) more powerful.”

Since the 1960s, the United Nations General Assembly has been the central enterprise for the protection of the global environment. The special issue suggests that it is high time the UN system recalibrates itself for the vagaries of scientific assessments and the political realities of the future. A new environmental charter is proposed to rejuvenate the founding values of the international system and restore faith in international environmental governance.

The third section, focusing on problematic situations, highlights how State sovereignty is a major stumbling block for effective environmental conservation and sustainable development. The modern international law movement makes States responsible for adapting regulations and securing compliance. Existing multilateral treaties may serve as an organizational principle for planetary management of natural resources. Writing about the direct and indirect impacts of armed conflicts on the natural environment, Peter Maurer, PhD, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Geneva, writes that States can integrate legal protections for the environment into their armed forces’ doctrines, and humanitarians must commit resources and expertise to help those coping with the environmental consequences of conflict.

“We all have our part to play as we face this existential threat,” Dr. Maurer states. “Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is the shift in in mindset and mechanics needed from States, humanitarian organizations, and those engaged in hostilities.”

Other contributions address sector-specific environmental problems including climate skepticism; transnational environmental crimes; soil protection and global food security; the impending global water crisis; ocean biodiversity, and a call for new approaches.

In a concluding section, contributors look to the future at international environmental governance structures and reforms that will be necessary to meet current and future challenges. It has become clear that the changes in attitudes and social structures called for at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment have not taken place and that now time is even more limited to make necessary, far-reaching changes.

Contributor Anna Sundström, MA, Secretary General, Olof Palme International Centre, Stockholm, comments, “Together, we face humanity’s greatest challenge. Together we must fix it. The need for international action remains even more acute.”

International governance is proposed to deal with the practical challenges of repairing environmental conflict. Contributions suggest reviving the United Nations Trusteeship Council, dormant since 1994, with a mandate for the environment and the global commons and turning the United Nations Environment Programme into a specialized agency to elevate its status and equip it with the necessary competence and financial stability. International and national courts and tribunals could become the new “environmental sentinels,” and a specialized International Environmental Court could serve as a global watchdog.

“The 50th Anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm Conference next year calls for honest introspection on what we have attained during the past 50 years,” says Dr. Desai. “This special issue is a modest effort to challenge the connoisseurs of international law and diplomacy to look ahead at this time of perplexity in the 21st century.”

On World Environment Day, June 5, 2021, an exclusive free online event featuring a panel of high-profile experts will explore the issues raised in “Our Earth Matters,” discussing pertinent questions about how we might move ahead to forge pathways to a better environmental future.

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