Efforts Get Underway to Consider Potential Global Environment Treaty Negotiations

13 September 2018

A United Nations process that could lead to negotiations for an international environmental treaty is beginning to get underway, with a working group meeting held last week and a major report from UN Secretary-General António Guterres due before year’s end. 

“Our demands for food, water, and energy are too high. And they will only rise, as our global population grows,” said Miroslav Lajčák, the Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs who currently serves as the UN General Assembly President. Lajčák was speaking last week at the start of the working group meeting, held in New York at UN headquarters. 

He also warned of the dangers of a rapidly warming planet, as well as marine pollution, warning that the world is “on track for an entire ecosystem collapse.” 

Chronicling the various environmental conferences and programmes that have emerged in recent years, ranging from the launch of the UN Environment Programme in 1972 to the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, he credited the work so far as “a very strong basis for action.” 

However, he added that a “Global Pact for the Environment… has the potential to create more coherence and integration among our various agreements and mechanisms,” using current systems, frameworks, and norms to leverage new momentum to address environmental concerns while adapting to shifts in the global economy. 

Possible 2019 deliverables? 

The working group process is being chaired jointly by Portuguese Ambassador to the UN Francisco António Duarte Lopes and Lebanese Ambassador to the UN Amal Mudallali, who were asked to take on these roles earlier this year. 

Back in May, the UN General Assembly endorsed a resolution entitled “Towards a Global Pact for the Environment,” directing Guterres to submit at the Assembly’s next session “a technical and evidence-based report that identifies and assesses possible gaps in international environmental law and environment-related instruments with a view to strengthening their implementation.” 

The General Assembly’s session this month begins on 18 September and concludes on 5 October. However, Guterres’ publication is now due for submission in November, according to reports from last week’s working group meeting. 

The May 2018 resolution also outlines how the working group should be set up, along with the potential for “substantive sessions” in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi, which is also where the headquarters of UN Environment is based. The resolution also suggested the possibility of an intergovernmental conference early next year that could consider, and potentially sign off on, an “international instrument” that would aim to resolve gaps in existing legal frameworks on environmental issues. 

According to a meeting summary from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), these substantive sessions are now due to begin in January, with subsequent meetings planned at two-month intervals through next May. 

Supporters of the global environment pact suggest that it could help create a stronger legal framework for internationally agreed environmental norms, given that many landmark achievements in this field are, in actuality, lacking in enforcement mechanisms, and may also have overlapping elements or may instead be inconsistent with each other. 

Delegations will likely have to navigate, however, some of the same challenges that have emerged during other environmental-focused talks at the international level, such as how such an accord will allocate responsibilities among countries at different developmental levels. 

The proposal for an international environmental agreement was first submitted by French President Emmanuel Macron for UN consideration a year ago, as the culmination of an expert-led process spanning multiple meetings and inputs from participants based around the globe. 

That process was chaired by Laurent Fabius, the French official who presided over the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted. Fabius, who was the country’s prime minister from 1984-1986, now heads France’s Constitutional Court. 

The expert coalition came up with a white paper and draft accord, which they describe as being based on the following principles: “duties of prevention and remediation of environmental damage, the right to information and participation in environmental decision-making, and the right of access to environmental justice.” 

International environmental landscape 

The global environment pact talks come amid a flurry of environmental activity on the international stage, which is due to continue throughout 2018 and into 2019. 

Currently, UN negotiators are meeting for the first session of an intergovernmental conference focused on crafting an international treaty on marine biodiversity in the high seas, with the resulting instrument meant to have binding legal force. That first session is due to conclude on 17 September, with more meetings planned in 2019 and 2020. That final instrument would be housed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

Meanwhile, a separate UN process to craft a “rulebook” to put into operation the Paris climate accord continues, with negotiators wrapping up several days of meetings in Bangkok, Thailand, with mixed results, and a generally shared view that much heavy lifting remains if they are to conclude those efforts when they reconvene later this year in Katowice, Poland, for the UNFCCC’s annual Conference of the Parties (COP). (For more on the UN climate talks, see related story, this edition) 

In addition, this month’s UN General Assembly will also feature a series of events related to climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals, known otherwise as the global goals, as well as a high-level event on financing sustainable development objectives.

ICTSD reporting; “Delegates Set Agenda for First Session on Global Pact for Environment,” IISD SDG KNOWLEDGE HUB, 11 September 2018; “Governments Commence Organizational Work on Global Pact for Environment,” IISD SDG KNOWLEDGE HUB, 6 September 2018.

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