The new 2020 Environmental Law guide covers 15 jurisdictions. The latest guide discusses enforcement; environmental incidents, permits and damage; corporate, personal, lender and civil liability; contractual agreements; contaminated land; greenhouse gas emissions; asbestos; waste; environmental due diligence; and taxes.
Last Updated: November 13, 2020
This introduction considers some of the main trends and themes in international environmental law and how these might influence its future development.
Contemporary environmental problems are predominantly global in their cumulative consequences. Increased demand and decreased supply, traditional transboundary issues of water management and air pollution, and a continued decline in biodiversity have an enormous impact on our highly interdependent world economy and remain the principal drivers of global environmental policy and regulation. This remains true in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While COVID-19 forced the world to focus on healthcare and the economy, ripples reached the practice of international environmental law. This was evident in the increased attention to the development of anti-microbials and disinfectants, the permitting challenges inherent in regulating new technologies, as well as impacts to the supply chain in the development of treatments and a vaccine. Record low air pollution levels were seen across the globe during COVID-19-related lockdowns. Ripples will continue to be felt, as governments, as well as multinational unions such as the EU, seek to tie economic recovery efforts to environmental and climate change efforts, embracing a so-called “green” recovery from the pandemic.
The future of international environmental law will continue to be framed by the complexity of the interlinked environmental, social and economic challenges now confronting decision-makers, particularly as the world seeks to make an economic recovery post-COVID-19.
Climate change continues to dominate global conversations on the environment and will continue to drive policy and regulations. Record high temperatures, polar ice loss, wildfires, floods and droughts continue to worsen, affecting communities, nations and economies around the world. Despite a temporary decline in greenhouse gas (GHG) levels due to COVID-19 lockdowns, experts warn that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record levels and continue to increase.
A flurry of regulations and preparations have been put in place to meet the terms of the Paris Accord, with increasingly ambitious plans on the table. China announced that it would aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, positioning the nation to join 13 other countries (including South Africa, Chile, Jamaica, Rwanda and Cuba) which have implemented plans to achieve net-zero. The European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emissions reduction from 40% to at least 55%. This will put the EU on track for climate neutrality by 2050 and for meeting its Paris Agreement obligations. The UK has instituted a carbon price floor placing a tax on fossil fuels used to generate electricity. Canada implemented the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, although that legislation is under consideration in three separate cases before the Supreme Court of Canada.
The USA continued its extensive rollback of major environmental protections at the national level, weakening regulation of vehicles and power plant emissions, specifically mercury emissions from coal-powered plants, as well as rules governing clean air, water and toxic chemicals. These rollbacks could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions, hampering other global climate change efforts.
Efforts to reduce carbon emissions continue to drive development of renewable technologies. Market shifts continue to favour lower-carbon products and services. However, the main driver of fossil fuel consumption and reduction is energy security and independence.
Availability of Clean Water
The single largest issue beyond climate change is the scarcity of clean water. At the highest level, water supply, sanitation and hygiene are the most critical issues faced by developed and developing nations alike. Over-exploitation of water resources, insufficient access to safe drinking water and water scarcity, water pollution and ageing water infrastructure systems across developed nations reflect ever-growing global pressures on this vital resource.
In June 2020, the United Nations launched the SD6 Global Acceleration Framework to unify the implementation of regulations as the world seeks to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, ensuring the availability and sustainability of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Water availability remains a major economic driver as corporations consider potential constraints on new locations due to water scarcity, possible operational and supply chain disruptions, and increasing costs of water. New markets will also develop for water-efficient technologies and desalination products.
In 2018, Cape Town in South Africa experienced one of the worst-ever drought-induced municipal water crises. The crisis was averted in part by new water-use tariffs and water-use restrictions in domestic, commercial and industrial sectors. As other regions are similarly impacted by drought and water scarcity, such water-use regulations may become more commonplace.
The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem is seen as an increasingly significant issue internationally. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the intertwined relationship between humans and nature. As noted at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, “We are reminded that when we destroy and degrade biodiversity, we undermine the web of life and increase the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to people.”
Natural resource depletion and adverse impacts of environmental degradation, including desertification, drought, land degradation, freshwater scarcity and loss of biodiversity, add to and exacerbate the list of challenges which humanity faces. The United Nations convened a Summit on Biodiversity on 30 September 2020 where world leaders called for increased resolve to protect biodiversity.
The loss of biodiversity and impairment of the ecosystem exacerbates and amplifies other environmental risks. For example, the removal of key coastal ecosystems often increases the severity of coastal flooding, ecosystem degradation has been a key driver of desertification, and food security is highly dependent on biologically diverse soils and other key ecosystem services such as water regulation, pollination and climatic stability.
The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides for the cessation of biodiversity loss as a measurable goal. Specifically, it seeks to take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species. This also includes provisions to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation.
Increased market, reputational, and regulatory pressure to reduce biodiversity presents both business risks and opportunities. There are physical risks to business arising from scarcity and increased costs of resources and potentially reduced productivity. Companies may also face increased litigation risks as a result of their exploitation of biological resources or their adverse impacts on ecosystems.