The Transformation of Environmental Law and Governance: Innovation, Risk and Resilience

By: Angela Lee

Recently, Professor Heather McLeod-Kilmurray and I traveled to Glasgow, Scotland to attend the 2018 IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium, hosted by the University of Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance. The colloquium, now in its 16th iteration, is a major event within the environmental law community around the world. Hundreds of scholars, practitioners, and students convened at the University's Technology and Innovation Centre to discuss and reflect on this year's theme, The Transformation of Environmental Law and Governance: Innovation, Risk and Resilience

One of the main goals of the conference was to explore the role of law and governance in addressing the opportunities, challenges and risks posed by technology and innovation, in order to build resilience. To this end, there were panel sessions dedicated to topics as broad as "Land Governance", and as specific as "Dealing with Risk and Technology in the Oceans: State and Corporate Social Responsibility".

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray presented in a panel called "Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems: From Law-making to Implementation". Her presentation looked at how trade law might be transformed to better align with sustainable food systems. She also chaired a panel on "Technology and Environmental Law and Governance", featuring scholars from South Africa, New Zealand, and the UK discussing technological developments like blockchain and drones, and the vexing legal issues that they raise. 

My own presentation was part of a panel called "What Futures? Techno-Fixes and the Role of Law and Governance in Land, Food and Agriculture". I discussed some of my ongoing research (part of the Food Justice case study) interrogating the complex relationships between food, technology, environment, law, and various kinds of justice (including intergenerational, intragenerational, and interspecies). As new and emerging technologies like genetically engineered animals and in vitro meat are increasingly touted to be an indispensable part of the toolkit when it comes to feeding the world sustainably, especially when it comes to animal products, I argue that technology's promises in this area are often over-emphasized and over-estimated, while law's potentials to shift diets for sustainability are often under-theorized and under-utilized. Upon more critical appraisal, a wholesale embrace of technological solutions may not necessarily be warranted when it comes to food, especially when taking a broader perspective in terms of how benefits, risks, and impacts are evaluated. 

Indeed, the need to think differently about environmental law and governance was stressed repeatedly throughout the event. Of particular relevance to environmental justice, there was a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of more robust legal rights (both substantive and procedural), including more (and better) public participation. The panel I chaired on "Civil Society and Community Participation in Environmental Law and Governance" exemplified this emphasis, as did other panels dedicated to "Environmental Justice", "Climate Justice and Liability", and "Environmental Litigation: Principles, Justice, Rights of Nature and Indigenous People".

One of the most fascinating aspects of the colloquium was being able to hear about research and litigation being undertaken in a diversity of national contexts, many of which are at different stages in terms of legal responses to social and environmental challenges. As keynote speaker Professor Tianbao Qin noted, the function of environmental law changes in light of the processes of social transformation that are often taking place in tandem. What this means is that, as countries struggle to reconcile the enduring tensions between environment vs. economy, willingness vs. capacity, and unity vs. diversity, it is important that legal solutions are adaptable and reflexive.

Speaking in the context of wind energy infrastructure, keynote speaker Maria Lee also reminded us that the question of scale is complicated, especially as scale is a concept that is socially constructed, including by legal processes. Although the common assumption is that wind energy projects are to the national/global benefit but to the local detriment, there is not a simple dichotomy between national and local, and different scales do not nearly nest within each other or rank in a simple hierarchy. Accordingly, there is a real need to engage with questions of authority and the scale of community by which we are willing to be bound.

Overall, the colloquium made clear that although technology will undoubtedly form an important part of the material and legal infrastructure when it comes to sustainability, it also poses a number of significant questions and concerns, particularly when it comes to risk and resilience. Consequently, it will be of paramount importance that current and future generations of environmental scholars, practitioners, and activists continue to engage with these issues, helping to ensure that the trajectory of innovation does not skew towards simply upholding the status quo, but that technologies can truly contribute to a more ecologically robust and socially just future for all.