2016 Year in Review: International Environmental Law

By Aure Demoulin

Spurred by a sense of urgency and increasing global recognition that environmental deterioration is a pressing issue, several key developments took place in international environmental law in 2016. In addition to the Paris Agreement, 2016 was the year of the first-ever global agreement cutting pollution from commercial airlines, the Marrakech Summit, and environmental lawsuits on behalf of future generations.

First Meeting of the Prep Com: The UN General Assembly established a Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) to receive recommendations for an internationally binding legal agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The Prep Com held its first meeting from March 28 to April 8, 2016 and discussed the relationship between the proposed instrument and other existing agreements, as well as marine genetic resources, benefit-sharing, environmental impact assessments, capacity building, and marine technology transfer. The sustainable but efficient use of ocean resources is a hot topic in environmental law, and the Prep Com’s first meeting only preceded the third edition of the Hamburg International Environmental Law Conference by a few days. The Conference debated ways to conserve the oceans’ ecosystems, as well as the role International Environmental Law should play in regulating activities such as deep sea mining, marine energy generation, seabed pipeline and cable systems.

Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA): The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation is the first-ever global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions from commercial airlines. Announced on October 6, 2016, this sweeping deal aims to curb carbon dioxide emissions from the international aviation sector, as well as aviation pollution’s effect on climate. The deal will be implemented in phases (participation in the early years being entirely voluntary) and aims to put the industry on a path toward more sustainability. 191 nations have expressed intent to voluntarily participate.

Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol: On October 15, 2016, 197 countries endorsed the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The amendment aims to curb the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful greenhouse gases, by more than 80 percent over the next 30 years in the hope to prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 F) of global warming by the end of this century. Manufacturers have used HFCs to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—phased out under the Montreal Protocol—as refrigerants in a variety of products. The amendment calls for developed countries to start reducing their consumption of HFCs by 2019 and for most developing countries to freeze consumption by 2024 or 2028. The new amendment pledges to provide funding for climate-friendly alternatives in developing countries.  

The Paris Agreement: The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the UN framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) meant to strengthen the global response to climate change. The agreement aims to curb greenhouse gases emissions in order to prevent a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F). After 195 countries negotiated the agreement, final language was adopted on December 12, 2015, and the agreement was opened for signature on April 2, 2016. As of December 2016, 194 UNFCC members had signed the treaty, 132 of which had ratified it. In October 2016, enough countries had ratified the agreement for it to enter into force. As a result, the agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016.

The Marrakech Summit: The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22), the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12), and the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1) were held in Bab Ighli, at the Marrakech Summit, Morocco from November 7-18, 2016. The Conference successfully demonstrated to the world that the implementation of the Paris Agreement is underway and that cooperation on climate change continues.

Global Lawsuits on Behalf of Young and Future Generations: In 2016, a global trend of lawsuits filed on behalf of future generations continued in the United States with a case filed in an Oregon District Court. The plaintiffs argued that by failing to protect public trust resources like water and air, the federal government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. Similarly, in June 2016, the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled in favor of seven-year-old petitioner Rabab Ali, allowing her constitutional climate change lawsuit to proceed. Yet another similar case is currently underway in the Philippines. In 2015, the Hague District Court in the Netherlands had ruled in favor of the Urgenda Foundation (representing multi-generations of citizens), compelling the government to reduce Dutch greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 (making current Dutch climate policies, which aim only for a 16% reduction, unlawful).

CETA: The EU-Canada Comprehensive Trade Agreement (CETA) is a new trade agreement between the EU and Canada. The European Parliament voted to adopt CETA on February 15, 2017, though EU national parliaments must approve the agreement before it can take full effect. However, throughout 2016, member of the European Parliament, such as Bart States, and public interest organizations had called for the rejection of CETA. States had warned that CETA risked undermining regulatory measures with regard to endocrine disruptors, which are estimated to cost Europe well over 150 billion Euros each year in additional health expenses. The European Commission has already acknowledged that mounting pressure from EU trade partners has led it to propose to lower standards of protection against endocrine disruptors. With CETA, Canada and Canadian businesses will be given increased leverage to pressure the EU not to introduce precautionary laws.