A Global Pact For The Environment: The UN's Plan For Global Climate Action

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If the world could choose a 2019 New Year’s resolution as one, united being, what should it be? Generally, resolutions are aimed at painstakingly working towards resolving a deeply internal problem. It would feel natural, in this extremely singular scenario, to resolve to solve the environmental crisis that our planet is undergoing, or at the very least make consistent united progress. For this very reason, the United Nations, pushed by Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s drive, is proposing a Global Pact for the environment, as outlined in a report released at its general headquarters last month.

The report in question, titled “Gaps in International Environmental law and Environment-related instruments: towards a global pact for the environment”, finds itself amongst many other environmental documents to have exchange hands at the U.N.’s general headquarters in a busy 2018. What is proposed here, however, is no simple report. Rather, what the World Commission on Environmental Law analyzed last December the 3rd was a complete analysis of the international body of law surrounding the environment, in an attempt to establish an ambitious overarching framework engulfing all international law concerning climate change. 

Historically, there has been no such great framework when it comes to environmental legislation. Generally, this kind of legislation is handled in a manner that is not only sectorial but rather fragmented and chosen a posteriori. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres focused his delivery towards the member states on these exact premises. What little environmental legislation currently exists is, in strictly legal terms, primarily based on which sector of industry it is closest related to. That is to say, current environmental legislation targets certain practices in certain sectors of industry, but there exists no overarching environmental framework that stands alone.

Along the same lines, current legislation is, as deemed by the Secretary General himself, rather reactionary. Based upon which natural phenomena occur when and where sectorial legislation is altered to reflect the necessities of the environment. This legislative situation encourages a system that falls apart at the national level, especially in member states where funds run short, and environmental legislation naturally finds its place at the sad bottom of a long list of priorities. At the international level, a similar kind of crumbling occurs, as the lack of any international legislative “umbrella” prevents other nations, or collectives of nations such as the United Nations to implement environmental law where it is necessary. 

To put this in more concrete terms, let’s take, as an example, a privately owned coal-burning plant in China. How are its environmental practices kept in check? The legislation they must follow is sector-specific and therefore falls within a category generally applicable to all other plants that dwell in the same industry. For the coal burning plant industry, environmental law might naturally find its way within the industry’s body of legislation, as emissions are a key component of its business. When we shift to a different industry, however, the chances of concrete environmental legislation drop substantially. All the same, the Chinese coal burning plant would have to abide by the laws set for the sector by the state’s government, something that is naturally set to drastically change as one shift their attention towards different parts of the world. 

What Guterres, together with the World Commission on Environmental Law are pushing for, then, is the effective implementation of a body of international law concerning only the environment. No such body of law exists, but the present proposal, which will be tabled at the 2019 meeting of the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, hopes to establish the necessary overarching framework to finally bring environmental legislation from the sectorial to the international. 

As Yann Aguila, of the World Commission on Environmental Law, put it, “the 26 articles of the proposition are both the philosophical and legislative foundation for the future of the planet”. The first article expresses all human’s right to a safe and clean environment. The second, on the other hand, expresses one’s duty to take care of their environment. Naturally, the philosophical double-edged sword this structure creates places pressure on both private entities to keep the government in check, as well as the usual vice-versa.

The global pact, as it is being coined, is filled with many other articles that aim to strengthen the “umbrella agreement” conceptualized by the committee and the Secretary General. For example, articles 12 and 13 respectively hone in on education and research, seeking a considerable commitment in both climate education and research through all member states. There would also be, as represented by article 17, a non-regression agreement, which would impede states from pulling out of the agreement; a clause which has, at least in the past, struck strange cords with the heads of multiple of the world’s greatest powers. Naturally, the pact would also include the establishment of a committee (as per article 21), which would be responsible for the maintenance and surveillance of each state’s legislative body, in a means to ensure it is “up-to-code” with the philosophy of the pact. 

Within the U.N. walls, there seems to be no doubt. It is an implementation that is both natural and fundamental to both our present and future well-being. Despite the obvious difficulties such an ambitious proposal entails, it is an active way to begin the necessary legislative process that might one day establish a large, successful body of law that anyone can refer to in assessing their behavior towards the environment. What is left to see is whether, in 2019, world leaders are ready to commit to implementing such a novel, yet necessary framework.