In the early 1970s, the environment was revealed to be an international problem—multilevel, multisectoral, multi-actor and transborder. Not only does the cross-boundary nature of environmental issues complicate their management, but the absence of clear leadership in terms of international governance also weakens a fragmented system which has potentially competing regulatory tools at its disposal.

Ratification of international treaties is one of various methods adopted to regulate environmental issues since the environment emerged as a problem of transnational importance. In December 2015, the first global agreement (the Paris Agreement) was the principal outcome of the international climate change conference, COP21.

A political and international issue

The Great Smog of London in 1952 – the worst atmospheric pollution in the history of the British capital – followed by a proliferation of environmental accidents in the 1960s, drew attention to the relationship between environmental crisis and human health. As early as 1962, Rachel Carson was already exposing the effects of pesticides in her book Silent Spring. While industrialized countries were increasingly concerned with pollution issues, in the South – in the throes of decolonization – new states were seeking to assert their sovereignty over their own natural resources. In this context, the ecology movement became increasingly radical, buttressed by the first satellite images of the Earth, which demonstrated its interdependencies (in the late 1960s). In the early 1970s the environment was established as a transnational issue, at once multilevel, multisectoral, multi-actor and transborder.

Climate change cases in court, March 2017

Source: The Status of Climate Change Litigation: A Global Review, UNEP,

Comment: There has been a huge increase in action taken by civil society climate protestors and NGOs, who appeal to the law and the courts for the purpose of making state and private actors responsible for continuing with activities that damage the climate. The map shows that these are mainly taking place in the societies of developed countries (more than 90%) and the United States but also, to a lesser extent, in Colombia, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines. For example, in December 2018, a collective of four NGOs claiming allegiance to the movement for climate justice, protection of the environment, and international solidarity, launched proceedings to prosecute the French state for its lack of climate action (the petition “L’Affaire du Siècle” [the Case of the Century] was supported by over two million signatories).

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, marked the starting point of the international institutionalization of environment management. This first Earth Summit led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UN Environment), at which point the idea of protecting the environment began to spread more widely. In 1992, in a post-Chernobyl, post-Cold War context, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio marked the institutionalization of the sustainable development concept, defined in the Brundtland Report (1987) and enshrining the belief that the market economy, technological progress and environmental protection could be compatible (ecological modernization). It led to the adoption of Agenda 21 and three major Conventions (on climate change, biodiversity and desertification). In 2012, UN Environment Assembly was created in the wake of the Rio+20 summit, but this did not fully resolve environmental governanceissues.

Fragmented governance

The multilevel nature of environmental questions makes managing them all the more complicated: a conflict between an indigenous population and a multinational corporation on the use of a given territory’s natural resources operates at local level, while the resources in question are often traded internationally and the economic actors involved do not necessarily originate in the territory concerned. State policies regulating greenhouse gas emissions affect companies located within that state’s territory – but also have an impact on the global fight against climate change which, in turn, has highly localized impacts, particularly in countries of the South. Similarly, regional regulations have an impact at national level – as in the case of the European Union. This tangled web of connections implicates a growing number of actors whose political and economic interests potentially diverge: citizens, experts, national and international NGOs, private companies, local and regional authorities, governments, regional organizations and international organizations. These actors are involved both in structuring environmental problems and in developing regulatory tools. Yet the current transnational governance system, both complex and difficult to reform, is marked by institutional fragmentation. International regimes structure negotiations that are compartmentalized by theme (climate change, biodiversity, hazardous waste, etc.) and the regulatory tools they develop can potentially compete with one another.

Civil society participation in international environmental negotiations, 1994-2017


Comment: NGOs and other non-state actors (such as academic and private-sector institutions) can register for international environmental negotiations as observers. This enables them to monitor the process, inform the public, and initiate proceedings against government delegations. The diagram shows that, of the three themes (forests, biodiversity, and climate), NGOs are mainly engaged in climate negotiations, where they have an ever greater presence (they were five times more numerous by the end of the 1994-2017 period than they were at the beginning), with the number of representatives per NGO ranging between five and ten, but this has been decreasing over the last decade.

Diverse modes of regulation

Two kinds of discursive and conceptual opposition shape the modes of regulation adopted: those relating to priority (protecting species vs protecting vulnerable populations, economic development vs environment, reparation vs prevention, etc.) and those relating to standards and representation (e.g. is the problem a scientific/legal/economic one – or is it about justice, ethics?). Environmental regulations are structured around four modes of implementation: regulation (contractual obligation), incentives (incentivizing measures), persuasion (information mechanisms), benefits (compensation). They can therefore be embodied in various forms: scientific initiatives (groups of experts, specialist IOs, etc.), political choices (privatization or nationalization, decentralized governance, public-private partnerships, etc.), market instruments (pollution permits, payment for ecosystem services, carbon tax, etc.) and often highly technical legal tools.

Timeline of the main international legal instruments on the environment, 1960-2018 

Source: author’s compilation.

Comment: Only four international legal documents preceded the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm), which was when international management of the environment was institutionalized. Since that time, as the diagram indicates, 26 new texts have seen the light of day. The states that are signatories enter a commitment, and civil societies bring cases before the courts in order to incite governments to action. The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21, December 2015) revealed the dual function of these legal documents: on the one hand they make global governance on the environment visible to the wider public but, at the same time, they have limits, and other key actors can play a role (there were thousands of signatories to the initiative “We Are Still In,” which aims to pursue climate action in the United States despite the federal government’s withdrawal, and over two million signatories to the petition “L’Affaire du Siècle,” in late 2018, aiming to prosecute the French state for its lack of climate action).

The environment issue is characterized not just by the juxtaposition of different jurisdictions – international law, custom, doctrine; regional agreements, bilateral agreements; federal, national and local jurisdictions; public policy in general – but also by an absence of clear international leadership. In fact, UN Environment was deliberately created as a normative agency with limited powers and the organization of secretariats associated with various multilateral environmental agreements diluted its ability to facilitate a coherent system of governance. Some issues tend to be over-treated due to the existence of multiple environmental regimes and negotiation forums, while the lack of leadership leaves other questions entirely unresolved.

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