On the 41st session of the WHC

As the G20 Summit in Hamburg wraps up to considerable media attention, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the other intergovernmental meeting currently under way, namely the 41st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (the body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and managing the World Heritage List and the World List of Heritage in Danger).

This year, the Committee has addressed important dossiers, including increased logging in the Białowieża Forest, the widespread destruction of the Site of Palmyra, and the repeated coral bleaching events affecting the Great Barrier Reef. For many of the sites inscribed in the two lists, the negative human impacts are growing, and certain country policies plainly run counter to the objectives of the Convention.

At the same time, however, the World Heritage Convention remains a powerful symbol of hope, and a testament to how sites of outstanding cultural and natural value speak to the very existence of humankind on planet Earth. In particular, the new inscriptions shall remind us of the quintessential importance of the interactions between different populations, religions and cultures in shaping human civilization as we know it (the Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town in the West Bank, the Historic City of Yazd in Iran, Kulangsu island in China); of the inextinguishable interplay between nature and culture in creating unique cultural landscapes which underpin the identity of human societies (the Kujataa farming landscape in Greenland, Taputapuātea on Ra’iatea Island, the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape between Botswana and Namibia); and of the multiple direct and indirect functions played by natural ecosystems around the world, ranging from their role as habitats of vulnerable and rare species to the irreplaceable services they provide for human well-being (the Landscapes of Dauria in Mongolia, the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in the Sudano-Sahelian region, the Primeval Beech Forests in the Carpathians and other areas of Europe).

In times of unprecedented threats to the world’s cultural and natural heritage, the work of UNESCO truly is invaluable, and after 35 years the World Heritage Convention continues to be one of the most relevant instruments in multilateral cooperation on global public goods. This is why all parties should refrain from politicizing its work, and instead seek to strengthen its contribution to cultural diplomacy, local livelihoods, and environmental protection.

For the newly inscribed properties, see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/newproperties/.


New CTEI Working Paper on trade and climate change

A study I recently co-authored (with Rana Elkahwagy and Vandana Gyanchandani) for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development is now out as a Working Paper of the Centre for Trade and Economic Integration (CTEI) of the Graduate Institute of Geneva. It was prepared under the supervision of Prof. Joost Pauwelyn and Prof. Anne Saab as part of TradeLab, an independent NGO which brings together students, academics and practitioners to provide pro bono legal advice on international trade and investment matters to developing countries and other smaller stakeholders.

The study, entitled ‘UNFCCC Nationally Determined Contributions: Climate Change and Trade‘, assesses the legal interactions between the Paris Agreement and international trade in the light of country commitments under their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). More specifically, the study seeks to achieve a better understanding of the impacts of the ‘response measures’ contained in the NDCs on economic diversification, including their interplay with existing trade rules, in order to build mutual supportiveness between the climate and trade regimes while also contributing to broader sustainable development objectives.

You can read the working paper here.

Can the 2030 Agenda change the norm?


Today, the prestigious Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation published my new piece on the role that the Sustainable Development Goals can play in changing the normative work of the United Nations to make it fit for the purpose of implementing the 2030 Agenda.

I am honored to be featured by an organization which seeks to uphold the crucial role of multilateralism in solving today’s complex challenges, in the spirit of a man whom John F. Kennedy once called “the greatest statesman of our century”.

In the article, I argue that in order to transform the UN approach to the development of new norms, it is necessary to understand what the Agenda itself implies for the evolution of international law, and more specifically for the establishment and further specification of sustainable development as a legal principle of integration between economic, social and environmental considerations.

You can read the article here.

The Sustainable Development Goals and international law: legal challenges to the achievement of ‘environmental’ Goals in the 2030 Agenda


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

On 25 September 2015, Heads of State and Government from the 193 Member States  of the United Nations gathered at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative Goals and targets” which will “stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet”.

In its essence, the outcome document of the UN Sustainable Development Summit (which contains the much-heralded Sustainable Development Goals) delineated a policy framework concerned with mobilizing efforts at the international, national and subnational level around a set of common priorities relating to sustainable development, and by doing so, it then sought to address challenges as diverse and ambitious as ending poverty and hunger, combating inequalities, building peaceful and inclusive societies, promoting human rights, and ensuring the protection of the planet and its natural resources.

From this perspective, the adoption of the SDGs represented an unprecedented effort not only to move away from a development agenda still heavily dominated by a narrow focus on the economic and social components (something which is evident in the design -and failures– of the Millennium Development Goals), but also to positively identify the reciprocal interactions between the various components of sustainable development that must be taken into account by States at the stage of implementation. This effort, in turn, will now require transformative changes in the way all sectors of society deal with the above-mentioned challenges: from the economy to life sciences to law, existing institutions and systems of rules will be called upon to remove the obstacles to sustainable development and actively promote the achievement of the 17 Goals and 169 targets.

As a legal scientist with strong interests in the field of the environment, I believe that legal regimes are particularly bound to interact with the 2030 Agenda, and that ensuring a mutually supportive relationship between them will be necessary if human development is to stay within the Earth’s planetary boundaries in the next fifteen years and beyond. While I will explore this topic more in depth in an upcoming journal article which I am currently writing with Professor Riccardo Pavoni of the University of Siena (Italy), here I want to highlight the important governance function that international environmental law can play in the implementation of the ‘environmental’ goals and targets contained in Resolution 70/1. In fact, on the one hand, as recently maintained by the UNEP, violations of international environmental law “have the potential to undermine sustainable development and the implementation of agreed environmental goals and objectives at all levels”. On the other, international environmental law constitutes the normative backbone of many (possibly all) of the SDGs, in the sense that institutional and legal developments in the field of the environment can either “foster” or “frustrate” such goals, and that the development of innovative legal approaches, coupled with increased stakeholder engagement, is necessary to accommodate environmental protection concerns in the operationalization of the 2030 Agenda.

Indeed, it seems prohibitive to outline all the potential challenges that international environmental law will have to address in order to enable a mutually supportive relationship with the post-2015 development framework. Moreover, it could be convincingly argued that the underlying problem in this respect will remain the lack of integration between international environmental law and different legal regimes, with a strong emphasis on areas such as trade and investment law and human rights. At the same time, it appears possible, when examining the content of the 2030 Agenda in the context of other recent developments both in the activities of the UNGA and generally in international environmental law, to pinpoint at least some of these recurring challenges. Pavoni and I hold nine of them to be particularly important. More specifically, four are concerned with substantive issues (broadly corresponding to SDGs 12-15) while the rest mainly relates to procedural elements, means of implementation, and shortcomings in the general architecture of international environmental law.

The four substantive challenges are: (i) swiftly implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change and ensuring that commitments contained in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of the Parties remain ambitious on a pathway to the decarbonization of the economy by 2050; (ii) developing a new regime for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as currently mandated by Resolution 69/292 of the General Assembly; (iii) strengthening integration within international environmental law by promoting the definition of linkage-based plans, policies and programmes, with a particular focus on the widespread adoption of an ecosystem-based approach to environmental protection, increased consideration of the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, and the role of environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws; and (iv) advancing a holistic approach to the management of chemicals and waste under existing international conventions and developing new multilateral agreements on the subject, where needed. Taken together, these challenges continue to highlight major gaps in international environmental law, and addressing them would also mean achieving concrete progress around at least five critical planetary boundaries, including climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, and introduction of chemicals, nanomaterials, and other novel substances.

The remaining topics emphasize the need to further advance key procedural norms and to strengthen the means of implementation in legal regimes in the field of the environment. Most of them reflect long-standing normative trends in the development of international environmental law, while others represent relatively new topics lying at the intersection of law and policy which must increasingly inform the development of multilateral environmental agreements and the evolution of already existing institutions and regimes. They are: (i) harnessing foreign direct investment, official development assistance, and domestic finance for environmental protection, including through further promotion of the role of market-based instruments such as payments-for-ecosystem-services schemes (PES), consistent with the vision outlined in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; (ii) increasing capacity-building in, and technology transfer to developing countries in order to operationalize the global indicator framework and, more generally, foster conservation and sustainable use efforts (i.e. in terms of establishment, management and effective monitoring of protected areas); (iii) reinforcing science-policy interfaces and bolstering the role of intergovernmental platforms in building capacity for the effective use of science in law- and decision-making at all relevant levels (i.e. in terms of the assessment and accounting of the economic value of ecosystem services); (iv) enhancing public participation in decision-making and access to justice and information as an indispensable component in the implementation of the procedural and substantive environmental rights of individuals and communities, as most recently urged at Rio+20; and (v) advancing liability regimes at the domestic and international level (but also, more generally, non-compliance procedures), particularly by moving away from the traditional rules of State responsibility in favor of more stringent civil liability rules.

It should be noted that it was not by chance that I reserved these two essential aspects for last. On the one hand, despite the message contained in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, progress on the topics of public information and participation and access to justice remains uneven, held hostage by geographical differences in the way human rights are being re-considered, translated into law and interpreted from an environmental perspective. As a consequence, it will be important to ensure that ambitious regional achievements on this topic, such as the Aarhus and Espoo Conventions, which provide for key procedural rights in the field of the environment, inform significant developments in other parts of the world. On the other hand, more than 20 years after the proclamation of Rio Principle 13 on liability and compensation, the emergence of rules of strict State liability and civil liability regimes in domestic legislation and/or multilateral environmental agreements continues to be undermined by the conflicting perspectives of States on issues such as the very definition of environmental damage, the role of the State in redress, the burden of proof, the scope of compensation, the limits of liability, and so forth. That these problems were carefully ignored in the drafting of the SDGs (not to mention the specific provision excluding liability and compensation contained in paragraph 52 of the decision adopting the Paris Agreement) bears further testimony to the steep task placed upon international environmental law in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

[Use the following citation when quoting from the article: Riccardo Pavoni and Dario Piselli, ‘Sustainable Development Goals and International Environmental Law: Normative Value and Challenges for Implementation’ (2016) forthcoming]

Accounting for ecosystem services to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo Credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) “The Páramo ecosystem of southwestern Colombia”

This post originally appeared on Sense & Sustainability on December 9, 2015.

When 193 world leaders gathered in New York this last September to agree on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, fittingly entitled “Transforming Our World“, the atmosphere was one of celebration and great optimism. After all, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) that are included in the new Agenda have been developed under conditions that are much different from those that led to adoption of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, when the latter were criticized due to the absence of a clear action plan, lack of previously defined means of implementation and monitoring, and the largely arbitrary set of challenges they sought to address.

First of all, the comprehensive, far-reaching commitments enshrined in “Transforming Our World” logically required a huge amount of preliminary groundwork and behind-the-scenes bargaining that in turn allowed the draft agreement to be in place well in advance of the Sustainable Development Summit. In addition, the entire process was punctuated by increased emphasis on the urgency to mobilize the financial, institutional and technological resources needed to implement the SDGs and establish an effective monitoring framework, as shown by the inclusion of a specific goal concerned with the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17), the endorsement of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the colossal work on data and indicators that is being put forth by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Finally, the SDGs themselves have the ambition to be indivisible, that is, to acknowledge that economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability can not to be pursued in isolation if mankind is to embark on a sustainable development trajectory; and universal, as the burden of their implementation (as well as the risks of a failure) will clearly fall upon the international community as a whole.

In this perspective, it is important for countries to set their priorities straight right from the outset, making sure that none of the goals is left behind even when geographical disparities and different capabilities will inevitably lead to uneven progress in their achievement. As a matter of fact, although some commentators have already argued that we shall only focus on those measures which will prove more cost-effective in the face of limited resources, the creation of fragmented pathways for the implementation of the SDGs would actually undermine the entire process, and the separation of social and environmental targets in particular would prove disastrous in the long-term.

The problem here is the same that led Goal 7 of the MDGs, which was tasked with ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’, to become one of the greatest failures of that agenda: it is way more difficult to convince governments and communities to invest in the protection of ecosystems and adopt policies that regulate the exploitation of natural resources than it is to tackle extreme poverty and advance human rights, where progress apparently yields more visible -and immediate- results.

Think of biological diversity, for example. Target 7.B of the MDGs explicitly recognized in 2000 that a surge in protected areas was needed to preserve ecosystems, species of flora and fauna that inhabit them, and their contribution to human societies. Yet that target, which the vast majority of countries had in the meantime pledged to achieve by 2010 by committing to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, still remains largely unmet. Should this be of some concern to us, if the meantime we lift people out of poverty and create more opportunities for developing countries?

The long-eluded answer to this question is a simple one: it should, because without halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the integrity of the biosphere we actually won’t be able to do the latter. Indeed, while it is very common (and legitimate) to reduce the question of conservation to one of compassion towards living beings, our relationship with nature is one of (inter)dependence, not stewardship. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since human beings first appeared. Discounting their value is a sure way for policy-makers to neglect the contribution of such systems to the well-being not just of future generations, but of present ones as well. In other words, it is due time we move towards a systematic accounting of ecosystem services and integrate it into national and local policies and processes.

This is not a new idea at all. Broadly defined as the direct and indirect benefits that ecological systems provide to humanity annually, ecosystem services have been conceptualized and assessed by researchers for several years now, even if there is still much to do in terms of refining methodologies and overcoming scientific uncertainty. In 1997, for instance, a seminal study led by ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated that US $33 trillion per year is the average value of these renewable goods and services (most of which are directly related to the role of living organisms within their ecosystem, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, biological control, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, and so on), and that figure was recently raised to US $125-145 trillion per year when Costanza used updated data to revise his own assessment. The same paper also hypothesized that the global loss of ecosystem services caused by land use change may already be costing somewhere between US $4.3-20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used.

Yet, countries have so far been reluctant to incorporate this way of thinking into their development and poverty reduction strategies, planning processes, national accounting, and reporting systems, as mandated in 2010 by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Even if some examples of local and national policies, whether resulting in the appointment of specific advisory bodies (like the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee) or the establishment of partnerships with organizations and programs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, indeed point in this direction, achieving the SDGs will necessarily require more than that, and will especially entail placing biodiversity into the mainstream framework for decision-making through an unprecedented focus on the role of data for sustainable development.

In order to do so, accounting for the flow of ecosystem services at the global, national, and local level must become a central concern for the implementation of Goals 14 and 15 of the new Agenda. Adopting Target 15.9, which essentially reiterates Target 2 of the Aichi Targets, was one first step. Making sure that the indicators proposed within the umbrella of the Inter-agency Expert Group keep track of the number of national plans and processes that integrate the values of biodiversity and ecosystems (although there was no agreement over this point during the latest meeting of the Group) will be another. The most important role, however, is going to be played by international platforms like the newly-established IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which will be tasked with strengthening science-policy interfaces and building capacity for the effective use of science in decision-making at all relevant levels: without their contribution, and the necessary willingness on the part of countries to participate in such processes, renewable natural capital will continue to decline at an alarming rate, and the likely consequences for human well-being of are all but certain to be dire.


  • Costanza, R et al., ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital’ 387 Nature 253
  • Costanza, R et al., ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’ (2014) 26 Global Environmental Change 152
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (Washington DC: Island Press, 2005)

Statement on COP21 participation

Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques - COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)
Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques – COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)

The Paris Agreement is a done deal. Despite its foreseeable shortcomings, it is a global climate agreement that will shape transformational pathways of change for our economies and societies in the next decades and beyond. Every young individual around the world should read this text, or learn more about it from the excellent reviews that are already available online (one of my favorites here).

Personally, I am glad and honored to have spoken in a few side events at COP21 this past week to highlight issue of biodiversity conservation within the new climate change regime and to promote the active involvement of youth in the implementation of the climate agenda. I was also extremely pleased to attend the Global Landscapes Forum on December 5-6, which highlighted the many linkages that exist between ecosystems and climate change and showed the importance of building broad coalitions of governments, business, and civil society to address the challenges that landscapes are facing everywhere on our planet.

As the Project Leader for Solutions Initiatives at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth, I have come in contact with many young people from around the world whose brilliant and tireless work on climate change only awaits to be recognized and supported by institutions, experts, and investors at all relevant levels. In 2016, we will continue to streamline such work in every forum and to help them implement and scale their transformative ideas and solutions.