I arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday morning to participate in some of the side events prior to the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. Beginning with the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, representatives of the nations of the world have been gathering every ten years for UN-sponsored “Earth Summits”. This year’s gathering is called “Rio+20” because it is being held at the site of the most successful such summit in 1992. Ten years ago in Johannesburg the World Summit on Sustainable Development highlighted the disappointing progress since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
The mood among environmentalists in Rio this year is decidedly gloomy. This is illustrated by the fact that one of the most prominent initiatives being promoted by environmental law professors is to have the conference endorse a “non-regression” principle - essentially to have the heads of state agree not to roll back previously established environmental protections. On Friday I attended the Rio+20 World Meeting of Environmental Lawyers at the Rio De Janeiro Botanical Garden Institute. This is where the opening ceremonies of the 2007 IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium were held. During the conference opening ceremonies Environmental Law Institute (ELI) President John Cruden announced that ELI is planning to launch a new initiative to support judges hearing environmental cases throughout the world through a virtual judges’ institute. Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Antonio Herman Benjamin discussed the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty status of environmental law around the world. While initial high expectations for environmental law have not been fulfilled, the field has matured in just 40 years, spurred the inclusion of public participation requirements in administrative law, and has led some court to create innovative vehicles for the representation of future generations in legal cases.
On Saturday June 16, I spoke on the opening plenary session of a Conference on Environmental Law and Justice that was held at the Supreme Court of Rio de Janerio. The Supreme Court has a spectacular new building adjacent to their historic old quarters in the metro area of downtown Rio de Janeiro. Sydney University Professor Ben Boer noted the gloomy projections of the OECD’s March 2012 report on the “Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction.” Professor Branca Martins da Cruz from the University of Oporto noted that Portugal has abolished its state environmental agency and folded its duties into the Ministry of Agriculature. Eckard Rehbinder from Goethe University noted that environmental law has established generally recognized principles such as the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, concern for environmental justice, the non-regression principle, and the notion of substituting inherently safer products for more dangerous ones. While some argue that the present structure of Western democracy is not well-suited to solving multi-generational environmental problems, Prof. Rehbinder argued for the reinterpretation of the principle of sustainability to support reduced consumption of energy, not simply more efficient use of it. Phillippine environmental activist Antonio Oposa argued that we should replace the terms “developed” and “developing” countries with “over-consuming” and “under-consuming” countries.
In my presentation I discussed the blurring of traditional lines between national and international environmental law and private and public law and the emergence of “global environmental law.” The notion of a shift away from primary emphasis on comprehensive international treaties to more “bottom-up” approaches seemed to be widely endorsed by other speakers. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other influential groups have endorsed the notion of countries making voluntary commitments - an effort to stimulate a kind of “race to the top.” More than 280 such commitments had been made by last Saturday. In the afternoon a panel discussed implementation of the Convention on International Trades in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Professor John Bonine of Oregon gave a terrific presentation on access to information. University of Limoges Professor Michel Prieur gave a terrific presentation on the intellectual roots of the “non-regression” principle. Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah of the High Court of Lahore, Pakistan strongly endorsed John Cruden’s notion of a virtual protal to provide information about environmental cases to judges around the world.
The actual Rio+20 conference is scheduled for June 20-23. There remain substantial disagreements over the language of documents to be signed when the heads of state gather for this conference. Some developing countries are seeking to repudiate commitments they previously made and some developed countries are opposing efforts to endorse new social and environmental rights and the non-regression principle.
Today the European Union added 13 chemicals to its list of “substances of very high concern” under its Registration, Evaluation & Assessment of Chemicals (REACH) program. Two of the chemicals - 1,2 dimethoxyethane and 1,3,5-Tris (TGIC) -- are among the chemicals prioritized by the U.S. EPA for risk assessment.
The University of Maryland is hosting the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law’s Tenth Colloquium on July 1-5 (see countdown clock on opening page of this website). We are anticipating more than 200 participants from nearly 40 countries.