Reflections on the Environmental Law Speaker Series on “The United Nations Global Pact for the Environment: Implications for Canada?”

By: Sunitha Bisan

The magnitude of issues under the United Nations Framework Agreement for Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement raises questions about the purpose of the Global Pact for the Environment proposal. The current challenges under the Paris Agreement ranges from greater accountability of climate financing, gender integration, and the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to loss and damage issues. Taking a step back, these concerns are around inequalities, ensuring there is no regression on commitments and just actions. Could a normative framework like the Global Pact for the Environment be the key to enhance implementation of our collective global commitments?

On September 24, 2018, the Centre for Ecological Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law hosted an Environmental Law Speaker Series to discuss “The United Nations Global Pact for the Environment: Implications for Canada?”. This was a timely conversation, particularly as the United Nations 73rd General Assembly in New York debates the topic of “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies”.  Could the Global Pact help address this concern of the United Nations?

Yann Aguila, Chair of the Environmental Law Commission, Club des Juristes and Secretary General of the Group of Experts for the Pact presented the gist of the Global Pact. His presentation was followed by in-depth discussions on the Global Pact for the Environment’s implications for Canada by a multi-disciplinary panel. The panel was comprised of Will Amos, Member of Parliament for Pontiac, Lisa Gue from the David Suzuki Foundation and Professor Nathalie Chalifour from the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Ecological Law and Global Sustainability. While the discussions were primarily focused on the Canadian context, they were also relevant to developing countries.

The UN Global Pact seeks to seize the opportunities of the increased environmental awareness at the international level, as emphasized by the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. The momentum is present to solidify the rule of law for the environment. Yann Aguila stressed that although France leads the Global Pact, it is the effort of a Group of experts from across the world. He informed that the guiding principles for the Global Pact were derived from the Stockholm Declaration (1972), the World Charter for Nature (1982), the Brundtland Report (1987), the Rio Declaration (1992) and the IUCN World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law. He expressed the caveat that the Global Pact is not a complete solution in spite of the benefits of harmonizing fundamental environmental rights. The Global Pact can potentially strengthen a broader environmental ethos supporting better implementation of the many conventions and treaties on environment and development within the UN as well as those developed by regional bodies.

These sentiments were echoed in the panel discussions. Will Amos, MP, raised concerns about sub-national implementation and the need to ensure that the Global Pact addresses fragmentation in implementation across each levels. This concern is pertinent as it draws on the legal value of the Global Pact. Importantly, environmental protection begins at these sub-national levels, as it is the site of climate disruptions and events. Harmonizing an ecological ethos and gendered perspectives are imperative in climate mitigation and resilience building to avoid perpetuating inequalities.

Another key component in determining the success of this Global Pact is citizen action. Lisa Gue, in her discussions on citizen’s activism, highlighted Yann Aguila’s introduction of Article 10 and 14 as proposed in the Global Pact, which recognizes the roles of non-state actors. This reminded me of the Aarhus Convention. Despite being a regional convention, the Aarhus Convention had albeit with some limitation, carved a pathway for access to information, public access to participate in decision-making as well as access to justice for supporting civil society participation universally. These Aarhus principles are important and need to be harmonized globally. The significance of this recognition is critical, as environmental activists are increasingly at serious risk. The Global Witness 2017 Annual report exposed the grave risks borne by environmental activists, noting that 207 activists were killed in 2017 with 60% of those killed being from Latin America.

These activists fight for the important right to a healthy environment through a conscious duty of care to the environment. The right to a healthy environment that is applied within Article 1 of the Global Pact as recounted by Yann Aguila is traced to the Stockholm Declaration. Professor Chalifour rightly appraised the intergenerational contexts of this discussion. She discussed the need for recognition of various cultures, in particular “the seventh generation” concept of Indigenous communities.  

The discussions of these underpinning principles cleared some doubts relating to the Global Pact. There are undeniable merits as well as challenges within the Global Pact for the Environment. The harmonization of common and fundamental principles is a welcome pathway to avoid a business-as-usual approach.

There was a tacit acknowledgment that more discussions are needed, not only within legal circles and high-level forums, but also with civil society. Many doubts are rooted in the discomforts surrounding enshrining a duty of care to the environment. The magnitude of the global climate and environmental situations requires collective action that has some degree of certainty and predictability. It is undeniable that the implementation of both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement would greatly be aided by a strengthened environmental rule of law. In the end, the hope is that environmental justice will be realized.

Sunitha Bisan is currently pursuing her LLM in Global Sustainability and Environment at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on intersections of Gender, Environment and Development.