A two-day convention held in Paris at the end of June 2017 saw the launch of the preliminary draft of the ‘Global Pact for the Environment’ (the ‘Global Pact’). The launch, attended by many high level politicians including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and French President Emmanuel Macron, potentially marks a significant step forward for international environmental law. If successfully implemented and adopted, the Global Pact for the Environment will be the first global covenant to protect and guarantee environmental rights across all nations.

In the lead up to the General Assembly of the United Nations, a summit was held on September 19th for this Global Pact where the current UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, voiced his support for the initiative and encouraged all nations to involve themselves with the development of the Global Pact. Moreover, the President of the General Assembly, H.E Mr Miroslav Lajcak lent his congratulations to France for ‘its demonstrated leadership in our shared responsibility to act on the environment’ calling President Macron’s dedication to the cause ‘very inspiring’.

It is, by all rational accounts, agreed that climate change is one of the largest and most real threats facing our generation today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) usually avoids any language that might come across as ‘alarmist’, however the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report published by the IPCC in 2014 explicitly states that it is ‘extremely likely’ that human behavior has been the ‘dominant cause’ of this threat and, furthermore, the IPCC has stated that ‘various extreme events are likely to change in magnitude and/or frequency’. In the wake of a series of environmental disasters that have permeated the globe in the last year (for example Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma), not to mention the environmental tragedies that have occurred in the last decade (including the ‘BP oil spill’ in 2010), now is most definitely the time for world leaders to step up and build on the momentum of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN and the Paris Climate Accord and begin to regulate actions that do irreparable harm to the environment.

As of now, international environmental law is contained in many separate (often overlapping) conventions and treaties, and countries have chosen which conventions or treaties they wish to be party to and which ones they do not wish to be bound by. Many, if not most, of these treaties and conventions have only been introduced in the last 45 years. The innovative idea and vision behind the Global Pact is essentially this – to unify the existing treaties and conventions into a single covenant, which would provide an overall framework for international environmental law, and to make it such that all countries in the world would eventually be able to adopt and implement its provisions. To this effect, the first draft of the Global Pact includes 26 articles, which collectively aim to protect environmental rights, dictate the environmental sustainability effort required from global nations and impose a duty on every nation worldwide to take care of the environment.

Unfortunately, the Global Pact is only at the earliest stage of the legislation process. The 26 articles included in the first draft of the Global Pact are condensed into a 9-page document. Included in the document are 3 articles which, in essence, cover the same ground as the Aarhus Convention, a 25-page document that just 40 countries in Europe were able to agree on after two years of negotiation. It would be incredibly naïve to think that some 195 countries across the globe would be able to uphold and enforce 26 generally stated environmental rights. The articles in their current form are vague, potentially incredibly burdensome and would require a significant amount of detail and specification before they could be agreed to by a handful of countries. For example, Article 1 guarantees every person the right to live in an ‘ecologically sound environment adequate for their wellbeing, dignity, culture and fulfillment’. There is no further detail given as to what an ecologically sound environment would be, how a nation or state would provide such an environment for its citizens nor does it specify how one might determine whether a person is living a fulfilled, dignified life.

From a legal perspective, the Global Pact poses even greater questions. Who would enforce the Global Pact? A compliance mechanism is vital to any piece of international law, be it environmentally related or not. Article 21, arguably the most controversial article included in the Global Pact, refers to a compliance mechanism, and proposes establishing a committee, made up of independent experts who are to focus ‘on facilitation’. An overall committee in charge of enforcing this Global Pact may infringe on national sovereignty and would likely not be agreeable to many nations across the globe.

Although the Global Pact seems to be gaining support from the UN (the main forum for global environmental law-making), it has a long way to go before it is a feasible option for nations worldwide to adopt and implement. It is heartening to see world leaders like President Macron treat environmental issues with the respect the situation demands, however, without the support of the United States of America under the Trump administration, it is improbable that the Global Pact will be able to accomplish what it wants. Nonetheless, it cannot be disputed that the Global Pact has allowed us to take another step towards bringing about real change in international environmental law.

Molly Sheridan – Business & Law Writer