Over the past thirty years, environmental protection has become an increasing need felt by the international community, which has gradually recognized the value of the international environmental law and the programmatic guidelines to follow.
Due to the inadequacy of national environmental measures (measures a posteriori), there was the necessity to define a new, worldwide, environmental policy and a legal regulation inspired by it. This led the States to enter into multilateral, regional, bilateral conventions and to prepare instruments to protect the environment in all its forms.
Since the 1970s, environmental protection has been, gradually, taken in the consideration of the international community, which has begun to look at it as a global issue. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) of Stockholm in 1972 pointed out the beginning of a global and institutional awareness of environmental problems, as written in its final statement:”We have reached a point in history where we must regulate our actions towards the whole world, taking into account first of all their repercussions on the environment” . Since then, the protection and improvement of the environment have become, in the intentions of the United Nations, a priority of paramount importance, as a precondition for the well-being of peoples and the progress of the whole world. A priority that obliges every one, from citizens to communities, from businesses to institutions, to assume their responsibilities.
In the following two decades, this awareness gave rise to numerous studies and scientific research on the state of health of the planet, also by virtue of the institution of fundamental bodies: the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), which, together with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), FAO, UNESCO and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), constitutes one of the most important references for sustainable development worldwide, the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development, also known as WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). From the problems directly related to the protection of the environment, since the 1980s, attention has gradually spread to the social aspects of the environmental issue, making the contradictions inherent in a development model that pays attention only to the purely economic implications emerge more and more evident.
Nonetheless, up to the 1980s, the approach to the environment had a predominantly sectorial and restorative connotation, in the wake of a non-preventive environmental policy, aimed mainly at remedying the damage caused. Only since the early 1990s , a new perspective emerged, based on the prevention and reduction of eco-disasters. During the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, solutions took shape capable of responding to the need for a new sensitive approach, creating tools to start a process of sustainable development, in the awareness of the close interconnection between environment and development. In other words, it became clear that, since the environment was a global problem, its protection could no longer be pursued at the local level and that it should have been looked at as an essential prerequisite in planning future economic and social development. The Rio summit represented a turning point because the development-environment dualism was finally resolved with the formula of sustainable development. In fact, it was promoted the cooperation between Nations to support developing countries and to achieve a greater balance between the exploitation of natural resources and their protection.
However, although the 1992 conference led to the development of – still – important principles, succeeding in developing the awareness of having to prevent pollution phenomena with greater determination, and to outline the essential guidelines of environmental policy for developing countries still lacking sector legislation, unfortunately, the results to which it has led have not been entirely satisfactory. On this occasion, Agenda 21 was prepared as a broad spectrum action program that aims to achieve a balanced coexistence between environment and development in the context of general international cooperation. Furthermore, some of the commitments established during the Rio de Janeiro summit are observed in the Kyoto Protocol, which is the first example of a legally binding global treaty in history. The Kyoto Protocol certainly represents a good starting point in the path towards the recovery of a balanced ecosystem because, with its entry into force, it becomes legally binding for everyone.
The improvement of environment measures has been minimal in the last years of XX Century, as emerged in the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg from 26 August to 4 September 2002, with the aim – declared by the UN General Assembly – to verify observations and commitments made in Rio ten years earlier. In fact, ten years after the first Rio summit, it has been found that, despite having caused a global awareness of environmental priorities and triggered a number of successful institutional processes, paving the way for development compatible with the environment, however, it has not produced tangible global results: the ecological balance has deteriorated, world poverty has increased and the fundamental need to radically change production and consumption patterns – a basic concept of the summit of Rio – was almost ignored.
The Earth Charter and the Agenda 2030
The Universal Declaration on Rights and Human Beings Towards the Natural Environment, also known as Earth Charter, was proposed by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (UNWCED) in the Brundtland Report of 1987 in order to “consolidate and extend the relevant legal principles” and “create new rules necessary to maintain the livelihoods and life on the planet they share and to guide the problems of the circumstances during the transition towards sustainable development“. The Commission also recommended that the new charter be “expanded additions to become a convention, establishing the sovereign rights and mutual responsibility of all nations regarding environmental protection and sustainable development” . The World Charter for Nature, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982, already affirmed respect for nature as a fundamental principle of environmental protection and contained a progressive vision of the strategies and policies necessary to achieve environmental well-being. However, the links between environmental degradation and problems such as poverty and fair human development were not sufficiently investigated; moreover, it was drawn up before the concept of sustainable development was formulated.
The appeal to draw up the Earth Charter had been accepted by the Rio Conference, during which various Governments presented their offers and many NGOs, including groups representing the main religious faiths. However, the tools to create a United Nations Charter have been abandoned because the coordination of all the Countries was too hard. As a result, the only valid document produced was the Rio Declaration, a precious document that, however, does not contain any ethical vision for an Earth Charter.
A new initiative has been undertaken since 1994 by the Earth Council, created in 1992 to promote the implementation of the Rio Earth Summit agreements and to support the formation of national councils for sustainable development. Based on extensive studies in the fields of international law, science, religion, and ethics, a new Earth Charter project has been launched under the leadership of Maurice Strong, UNCED secretary-general, and Mikhail Gorbachev, president of Green Cross International. In order to find a global dialogue and gather a general consensus regarding the principles of environmental protection and sustainable development, the Earth Council and Green Cross International have launched international consultations and, in May 1995, at an international conference in Aja, have prepared and disseminated a study of over fifty principles of international law entitled “Principles of environmental protection and sustainable development: summary and evaluation“. In early 1997, the Earth Charter Commission was set up, whose members were chosen to represent the main regions of the world, and formed an international drafting committee on ethical principles for the conservation of the environment and sustainable development.
Since the Earth Charter was completed in 2000, Earth Charter International has focused on having the governments represented at the United Nations to translate principles into action. However, until well into the preparatory process (2011–2012) for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), governments and many NGOs were incapable to recognize the need for fundamental, transformative change and the interconnectedness of our global challenges.
“Transforming our World, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was adopted by Heads of State on Sept. 25, 2015, immediately after the Pope’s address to the UN General Assembly. This Agenda contains 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets for reaching those goals. Agenda 2030 and the Paris Climate Agreement adopted in December 2015, were watershed events, with the world’s governments agreeing unanimously to adopt agendas and commitments for transformative change that they identify many important actions that must be taken to extend needed opportunities and build capacities for all, and to protect and restore the health of the ecological systems necessary for our well-being. In particular, it could be necessary to analyze the following goals:
SDG 13: “With rising greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is occurring at rates much faster than anticipated and its effects are clearly felt worldwide. While there are positive steps in terms of the climate finance flows and the development of nationally determined contributions, far more ambitious plans and accelerated action are needed on mitigation and adaptation. Access to finance and strengthened capacities need to be scaled up at a much faster rate, particularly for least developed countries and small island developing States“.
SDG 14: “The expansion of protected areas for marine biodiversity and existing policies and treaties that encourage responsible use of ocean resources are still insufficient to combat the adverse effects of overfishing, growing ocean acidification due to climate change and worsening coastal eutrophication. As billions of people depend on oceans for their livelihood and food source and on the transboundary nature of oceans, increased efforts and interventions are needed to conserve and sustainably use ocean resources at all levels“.
SDG 15: “There are some encouraging global trends in protecting terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity. Forest loss is slowing down, more key biodiversity areas are protected and more financial assistance is flowing towards biodiversity protection. Yet, the 2020 targets of Sustainable Development Goal 15 are unlikely to be met, land degradation continues, biodiversity loss is occurring at an alarming rate, and invasive species and the illicit poaching and trafficking of wildlife continue to thwart efforts to protect and restore vital ecosystems and species”.
Agenda 2030 is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. The SDGs seek to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.
Unfortunately, key indicators to guide and measure transformative change are missing. For this reason, several NGOs, UN Agencies and International Environmental Law Centers are implementing legal research and advocacy, education and training, with a focus on connecting global challenges to the experiences of communities on the ground.