Stakeholders, Government Representatives Discuss the Global Compact for the Environment
UN Photo/Mark Garten
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Laurence Tubiana, Chair of the Board of Governors at the French Development Agency (AFD), explained that things are moving with the Paris Agreement on climate change but too slowly and suggested the Global Compact for the Environment could create momentum.

Susan Biniaz, Columbia Law School, observed that countries would be reluctant to accept an agreement that provides an interpretation of other international agreements, adding that making non-legally binding principles binding would weaken them.

20 September 2017: The team of legal experts and government representatives who worked on the Global Compact for the Environment presented the blueprint for the Compact during an event organized at Columbia University. Participants discussed whether the Compact is necessary given the recent adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015, and what the value-added of the Compact would be.

The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Le Club des Juristes, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Iberdrola, and BBVA Compass organized the event. It took place on 20 September 2017, in New York, US.

The Global Compact came into existence following a proposal of Le Club des Juristes: in its November 2015 report titled, ‘Increasing the Effectiveness of International Environmental Law: Duties of States, Rights of Individuals,’ the Club’s Environmental Commission proposed the adoption of a Global Pact for the Environment to serve as a binding, universal “umbrella text” synthesizing the principles outlined in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Earth Charter, the World Charter for Nature, and other instruments shaping environmental governance. Subsequently, the group developed a draft pact and presented it at an event in Paris, France, in June 2017. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, presented the draft to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 19 September 2017, during UNGA’s high-level week.

Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University, opened the 20 September event. He observed that the best way to curtail severe weather events, like the recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, is to implement the Paris Agreement and the Global Compact.

The Compact’s text specifies that states would commit that no future changes in their environmental laws would reduce their carbon-reducing targets.

Laurent Fabius, President, the Constitutional Council of France, noted that governments should approve the Compact no later than 2020. Fabius explained that, by agreeing to the Compact, states would commit that no future changes in their environmental laws would reduce their carbon-reducing targets. He said the creation of a group of states supportive of the Compact would be necessary to ensure the Compact’s wide adoption.

Nicolas Hulot, Ministre d’etat, Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, France, said the Paris Agreement is not the end of the story, but the beginning of the story, with the Global Compact being the second chapter.

Laurence Tubiana, Chair of the Board of Governors, the French Development Agency (AFD), explained that things are moving with the Paris Agreement but too slowly; thus, the Compact aims to create momentum.

Yann Aguila, Le Club des Juristes, said the Compact contains 20 principles, most of them from the Rio Declaration and agreed at the international level. However, he explained, one challenge is that the principles are spread over different agreements and they are not legally binding.

Susan Biniaz, Columbia Law School, said the Compact does not clearly specify the environmental problem that it aims to resolve and its purpose is not clear. She observed that the Compact goes backwards with regards to international law, explaining that fragmentation caused by different treaties, which the Compact’s authors say they want to address, is precisely needed to address specific problems. She argued that the lack of an overarching environmental agreement is not the reason the environment is not protected not; rather, she explained, it is because of a lack of law enforcement, capacity and political will for existing agreements. Biniaz observed that countries would be reluctant to accept an agreement that provides an interpretation of other international agreements, which were agreed precisely because of their nuances. Biniaz added that making non-legally binding principles binding would weaken them.

Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, University of Geneva, highlighted the principles of non-regression and resilience as some of the new principles that comprise the Compact’s added value. Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility (GEF), expressed support for the idea of integrating principles from fragmented treaties into an integrated whole.

Maxine Burkett, William S. Richardson School of Law, observed that the Compact lacks a clear definition of the environment, and it does not include humans as part of the environment.

David W. Rivkin, Co-Chair of the International Dispute Resolution Group, Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, said soft law, such as many of the principles set by the Paris Agreement, can be very useful for guidance, while hard law (legally binding) documents, such as the Compact, are more specific and effective for implementation. However, he cautioned, the buy-in of a legally-binding agreement and the actual implementation of some of the Compact’s principles would be challenging.

Fernando Carrillo Flórez, Procurator-General, Colombia, welcomed the Compact’s “clear standards of interpretation” of other international agreements and specific guidance for governments. Marcos Orellana, Human Rights Watch, observed that the Compact could provide a stronger path to accountability for governments, as the current international agreements lack strong accountability provisions.

Sarah Cleveland, Columbia Law School, and member, the UN Human Rights Committee, said even though legally binding instruments can put pressure on governments to implement them, legally binding instruments “are not a panacea for anything.” She explained that the international community seems better at creating legally-binding instruments than at effectively implementing what already exists.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, World Wildlife Fund, highlighted the need to harmonize and synchronize current global standards and practices, adding that, since the world has changed since Rio, new standards are needed and welcomed.

Halldór Thorgeirsson, UN Climate Change Secretariat, said the force of international treaties does not come from their legal force but rather from their moral force. Environmental agreements could become stronger by strengthening governments in non-environmental areas such as taxation, he suggested, which would help with the internalization of externalities. [Conference Website] [Global Pact for the Environment] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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