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Environmental Sustainability, Justice, Governance & Law: Challenges and Opportunities

Honourable Chief Justices, Attorney Generals and Prosecutor Generals, Auditors-General,

Honourable Ministers,

Your Excellences

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen


  • It is an honour to be addressing this remarkable gathering of representatives of key national institutions, whose contribution to environmental sustainability and sustainable development is invaluable, and whose full engagement is a pre-condition to,  at this historic juncture, change path and fully embrace a renewed form of progress that is built upon the strongest foundations: environmental sustainability.
  • Environmental sustainability challenges are closely linked with the work of Chief Justices, Attorney Generals and Prosecutor Generals, Auditors-General. The contribution of these institutions can have a great impact because:
    • The authoritative voice of high level representatives of these institutions can inspire the adoption of ambitious decisions: and 
    • The day to day efforts, leadership, and commitment of the judiciary, legal and auditing communities are the backbone for the implementation of any such decisions and of any meaningful change in trajectory, shift in mindset, and concrete change.

Objective of Rio+20

  • On Wednesday, Heads of State and Government and other high level representatives from countries worldwide will meet here in Rio de Janeiro at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The Conference is convened with the objectives of :
    • securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development;
    • assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and
    • addressing new and emerging challenges.

  • It will focus on the two themes of:
    •  a Green Economy - in the context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication; and
    • the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.

Financial vs Sustainability Crisis

  • Over the past few years the preoccupation across many countries in the world has been how to respond to the financial and economic crisis that is affecting so many people in the world. While the issues discussed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012–or Rio+20 - may appear to some less important, the contrary is true.
  • However, transformational decisions on sustainable development – which hopefully will arise from the – have the potential to countering and preventing a suite of persistent, evolving and emerging crises – including but not only of a financial nature.
  • The environment is in fact the foundation of all our activities, of our well-being and of humanity’s very survival. Well-functioning ecosystems provide reliable and clean flows of water, productive soil, relatively predictable weather, and many other services essential for human well-being. Today, however, many ecosystems and the services they provide are under increasing pressure.

Facts and figures about the environment

  • Some interesting figures:
    • Over the last 25 years, while the world economy has more than doubled, 60% of the world's ecosystem services covered by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are found degraded or used unsustainably.

    • Each year, 13 million hectares of the world’s forests – the size of Greece – disappear

    • According to UNEPʼs Year Book 2012, 24 per cent of the global land area has already suffered declines in health and productivity over the past quarter century as a result of unsustainable land–use

    • Some kinds of conventional and intensive agriculture are triggering soil erosion rates some 100 times greater than the rates at which nature can form soil in the first place

    • By 2030, without changes in the way land is managed, over 20 per cent of terrestrial habitats such as forests, peat lands and grasslands in developing countries alone could be converted to cropland–aggravating losses of vital ecosystem services and biodiversity

    • Greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb, pushing the planet towards the 2 degrees C threshold above which scientist fear some environmental changes could become irreversible– global warming could trigger increasing numbers of displaced people and make whole countries inhabitable including the low lying island of the Maldives and Kiribati.

  • These figures show how the world is, on its current trajectory, undercutting some of the essential services that nature has for millennia freely provided and is driving towards unprecedented conditions that could tip these services into new and perhaps less productive states with significant consequences for global supply chains, human well–being and social stability.  They show that urgent action is required if we want to change this trajectory and revert the trend.

Natural capital on the periphery of existing economic models + the Green Economy

  • Natural capital – or the services provided by ecosystems - such as forests, the atmosphere, freshwater – has traditionally been marginalized in the pursuit of economic growth, and this has resulted in great loss, in terms of the health of our ecosystems but also in terms of the sustainability, over time, of our economies. 
  • However, more and more countries, companies, cities, administrators, public figures, and citizens now feel the need -and recognize the opportunity – for doing things differently and pursue a different form of development and progress, where environmental sustainability is at the core, rather than at the periphery, of human activities.
  • A UNEP report on the green economy, launched in November 2011, underlines that if the world invested a small percentage of countries’ GDP - two per cent - in ten key sectors and backed by the right enabling policies, economies can continue to grow but without the shocks and risks inherent in the current economic model. The findings of that report challenge the myth of a trade-off between investing in the environment and investing in economic growth and point to great synergies instead.
  • The green economy is a concept that can echo to all economies at different stages in their development - and may be even more relevant to developing economies than developed ones.  Many countries are already heading onto more creative and intelligent paths at least in some sectors and areas of their economies. This transformation is possible and is already happening.


  • The environment and its ecosystems have boundaries that do not correspond with political boundaries, and environmental sustainability is closely interlinked with other aspects of “sustainability”. That is why the discourse on environmental sustainability is so complex and requires a strong analytical framework [possibly refer to the concept of a triple helix approach] and – even more importantly – a strong governance framework in which to occur. Environmental governance is a crucial element of the broader institutional framework for sustainable development reform that is being discussed at Rio.
  • The world leaders will aim at reforming and refocusing the institutions and the bodies charged with delivering sustainable development, in order to better equip them for a new century. They will consider among other things the establishment of a world organization for the environment, possibly in the form of a specialized agency, that gives the environment the weight it deserves vis a vis other development and cooperation concerns, to achieve a more balanced public policy discourse.
  • There are other options on the table, that try to respond, to various degrees, to a universally recognized truth: it has long become clear, for over a  decade now, that the current International Environmental Governance architecture needs to be reformed, and strengthened, for more effectively tackling global environmental problems, and for supporting national level efforts to develop sustainably.
  • The reasons why transformative decisions are needed on International Environmental Governance are several:
    • Ministers need an authoritative platform, from which to set the agenda for the global environment.
    • The rich network of institutions, agreements and processes that address environmental issues within the United Nations system testifies to the generalized recognition of the pivotal role of environmental sustainability. However, overlapping mandates, proliferation of funds and dispersion of resources are the negative side of such developments and a more coherent and coordinated approach is needed.
    • An effective international environmental governance is closely linked with the international environmental law panorama (of which Multilateral Environmental Agreements are a big part): a coherent governance framework at global level will lead to a coherent and effective set of rules and implementation frameworks.
    • More and more work is required of organizations like UNEP to support countries in their implementation of internationally agreed goals and obligations and to address their pressing national priorities. We need to increasingly invest into capacity building and implementation and to strengthen our ability to make a difference on the ground, including in the field of environmental law.

Linkages between environmental challenges and the role of  the legal and auditing community

  • To address the complex environmental sustainability challenges that the world is facing today, there is a need for urgent, concerted and effective action. This requires not only renewed political commitment, and the right decisions by the international community, but also the support of a web of actors, enabling conditions and institutional arrangements that will facilitate decision-making and the translation of commitments into action.
  • Right policy choices need to be followed by the enactment of good legislation and regulation, supported by a well-informed, strong and independent judiciary, by adequate enforcement systems, as well as conducive environments and effective governance frameworks. The legal and auditing communities have a very important role to play in this continuum: only with their full engagement one can dream of achieving the ambitious goals of, among other things, a green economy and, more broadly, a new form of progress that equally delivers on economic, environmental and social objectives.

Law for a green economy

  • Regarding the transition to greener economies, for instance, there are many opportunities to promote such change: legal and policy frameworks can be reformed, for instance, by including incentives to encourage green investment and technology innovation, promoting equitable tax systems, and removing environmentally harmful subsidies.
  • New legal approaches may also be needed to introduce tools for valuing and pricing natural resources and environmental services, establishing national green accounting systems, and measuring progress for sustainable development. Legal frameworks can also ensure that the transition to a green economy is pro-poor, and introduce adequate social safeguards. Law- however - is only as good if it is enforced and therefore need to be accompanied by adequate governance systems and implementation means.

Multilateral Environmental Agreements

  • The legal and auditing communities also have a very important role to play in ensuring the implementation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, which inform the development of environmental legislation at the national level - for those countries that are parties to these international treaties- in key areas such as certain aspects of chemicals and waste management, adaptation to  climate change, regulation of certain emissions in the atmosphere, the protection of biodiversity, combating drought and desertification, the regulation of imports and exports of endangered species of fauna and flora – just to name a few.
  • The development of national legislation, which is one of the key actions required of parties in order to implement the obligations introduced by such agreements, is not sufficient to achieve their goals, which require the full engagement of a broad range of national institutions, including law enforcers. For instance, the entire enforcement chain needs to be involved in addressing environmental crime, which is a great obstacle to the achievement of some of these treaties’ objectives. International cooperation among enforcement bodies is also essential.
  • Important legal issues are also associated – for instance - with access to genetic resources, and the sharing of related benefits, which is the subject of a new protocol, the “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity”, which complements the convention on biological diversity. More broadly, environmental legislation implementing any international treaty needs to be implemented.
  • Further, it is interesting to note how environmental auditing, as well as the assessment of Multilateral Environmental Agreements’ implementation, are increasingly being included in the work of supreme auditing institutions.

Other linkages between the ongoing environmental degradation and the role of justice, governance and law

  • The above are just some highlights of the broad range of issues where the role of the legal and auditing communities is key to reversing the ongoing environmental degradation.  Some of the questions the World Congress may be confronted with will include:
    • For Environmental law:
      • What are the approaches and principles in the hands of the judges, prosecutors and legal practitioners to – among other things - prevent and redress environmental damage and enable the restoration of degraded ecosystems? What are the emerging developments?
      • What legal approaches can be used to address the environment in areas that do not fall under national jurisdictions, such as in the high seas, in order to address the growing concern of depleting fisheries, and the issues associated with access to genetic resources in those areas- to name a few?
      • What are the best approaches to combat transnational environmental crime, key to achieving the goals of – for instance - the CITES convention on endangered species, forests conservation (e.g. illegal logging), and to preventing the harmful impacts of illegal trade in waste and chemicals (e.g. illegal dumping accidents)?

    • Regarding Governance:
      •  What makes a governance system effective in addressing environmental problems, in the current economic, social and cultural environment?
      •  What are the legal foundations of effective governance systems?
      • How can we overcome fragmentation and ensure a more comprehensive and coherent approach to environmental problems and more inclusive decision-making processes?

    • On Justice: 
      • What developments are needed to make the nexus between human rights and environment stronger, and by so doing fully recognizing that the environment is a foundation for meeting basic needs and the enjoyment of rights, and the protection of ecosystems and their restoration are necessary in this perspective? How can broad and non-discriminatory access to ecosystem services be guaranteed?
      • How can the principle of access to information and justice, and public participation in environmental matters (principle 10 of the Rio Declaration) be further operationalized for better environmental management?

Looking ahead

  • It is to complement the unique opportunity offered by the Rio+20 Conference, that UNEP has convened this World Congress, where you, the highest representatives of the judiciary, Attorneys-General and Chief Prosecutors, Auditors General, Ministers and other representatives can have a high-level dialogue on the central environmental law challenges of today and the next decades.
  • And can ponder on the role of governance frameworks and justice foundations for environmental sustainability.
  • The outcome of Rio+20 will be known in a few days’ time—it is not an end in itself.

But hopefully a moment when a sustainable century begins and where your skills, wisdom and experience will be crucial for underpinning the ultimate success of the decisions taken by Heads of State by 22 June.




Further Resources

World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability

UNEP Division of Environmental Law and Conventions

UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

UN Opens Major Congress to Promote Role of Law in Achieving Sustainable Development


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