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The Evolution of International Environmental Law

International environmental law is under constant review to protect the welfare of humankind. The United Nations Environment Programme defines its major goals to promote intergenerational equity - which involves “the right of future generations to enjoy a fair level of common patrimony,” as well as intragenerational equity which considers “the right of all people within the current generation to fair access to the current generation’s entitlement to the Earth’s natural resources”.

Prior to the 1960s, there was little global concern and awareness around environmentalism and only few, isolated regulatory initiatives for international law. One of the only attempts to enforce global commitment to the protection of the environment failed; the London Convention of 1900 was directed at the protection of African wildlife but lacked adequate signatories. However, in the 1960s, public concerns for the environment started to rise and prompted the environmental movement in the United States.

The Stockholm Declaration, the first international document to recognise the protection of the environment as a major global issue, was born from the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. Its 26 articles ranged from human rights issues such as colonialism to guidelines on renewable and natural resources. The Conference also initiated dialogue between developed and developing countries on how economic growth links to the environment and the welfare of people around the world.

Another major outcome of the Stockholm Declaration was the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. The UNEP is not a United Nations specialised agency as these were all based in developed countries at the time. The purpose of this setup was to raise global awareness on the fact that environmental issues are endemic and could impact certain regions more severely than others. Following the Stockholm Declaration, not only did Green political parties start to emerge in different nations but also there was a stark increase in the number of local environmental legislations around the world.

Another critical moment in the development of international environmental law was the Earth Summit in 1992 which took place in Rio de Janeiro. During the summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. The theme of sustainable development guided the summit as there was increasing evidence that human activity was the leading cause of the biggest environmental threats. One notable development pushed by the Earth Summit was Principle 10 which sought to recognise civilians’ participation in and right to information regarding environmental matters. This demonstrated the increasing importance of public participation in environment protection efforts.

After the Rio Summit, major economic treaties began to take environment protection into account. The Marrakesh Agreement, which led to the establishment of the World Trade Organisation, was the first piece of economic treaty to specifically mention the goals of sustainable development. Other major developments include the Kyoto Protocol - the first legally binding agreement for developed countries. The protocol also gave rise to the Paris Agreement which asked for all signatories to commit to the prevention of global warming, specifically the increase of the global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius.

In recent years, international environmental law has also placed a significant focus on the protection of the environment during warfare. Armed conflict on an international level could be deemed as one of the most destructive activities for the environment, often causing large-scale pollution and damages. Countries, however, are often reluctant to sacrifice their “freedom of action” in the context of war. In response, international environmental law has put their priority on the minimisation of destruction, rather than the complete elimination of destruction.

Notably, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques sought to protect the states of the environment and natural resources by prohibiting the use of techniques that would have “widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other state party”. This Convention followed the American War in Vietnam where massive amounts of herbicides and weather-changing techniques were used. Recent critics have pointed out, however, that these guidelines are far from adequate to efficiently ensure the protection of the environment during warfare. Recognising the need for clearer guidelines, the UN Environment and the Environmental Law Institute released a report to identify the weaknesses of international environmental law in the regulation of wartime environmental protection in 2009.

The urgency of climate change ensures that international environmental law is subject to change. That the law responds quickly and efficiently to the changing environment is crucial to the welfare of future generations and the environment itself.


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