Global Perspectives on a Global Pact for the Environment

Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment
Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment

Edited by Michael Burger (Sabin Center for Climate Change Law), Teresa Parejo (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network) and Lisa Sachs (Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment).

With support from Nathan Lobel (Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment).

On May 10, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted Resolution 72/277 (“Toward a Global Pact for the Environment”), which calls for the Secretary General to submit “a technical and evidence-based report” on “possible gaps in international environmental law and environment-related instruments” at the 73rd session of the UNGA. The resolution also establishes an “ad hoc open-ended working group… to consider the report and discuss possible options to address possible gaps.”

As the UNGA convenes this week, we are bringing together independent thought leaders and legal scholars from around the world to weigh in on what, if anything, the process initiated by UNGA Resolution 72/277 might usefully accomplish; and what the United Nations agencies, national governments and civil society stakeholders engaged in the process could usefully consider. Together, these perspectives identify a number of existing issues that merit attention and, if heeded, might inform negotiations on the future of international environmental governance. 

  • Marisol Anglés Hernández, Researcher, Institute for Legal Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico
  • Sumudu Atapattu, Director of Research Centers and Senior Lecturer, University of Wisconsin Law Schoo
  • Lisa Benjamin, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law, Pennsylvania State University
  • Susan Biniaz, Former Deputy Legal Advisor, US State Department; Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University; Associate Researcher, IDDRI; Senior Advisor, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
  • Daniel Bodansky, Foundation Professor of Law, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
  • Ben Boer, Distinguished Professor, Research Institute of Environmental Law, Wuhan University; Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney
  • David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, United Nations Human Rights Council
  • Maxine Burkett, Professor, University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richard School of Law
  • Bharat H. Desai, Professor of International Law and Jawaharlal Nehru Chair in International Environmental Law, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • Fabrizio Fracchia, Professor, Department of Law, Bocconi University
  • Pilar García Pachón, Director, Department of Environmental Law, Externado University, Colombia
  • Michael B. Gerrard, Professor, Columbia Law School
  • John H. Knox, Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, Wake Forest University School of Law
  • Pilar Moraga Sariego, Professor, University of Chile
  • Damilola S. Olawuyi, Associate Professor of Law, Hamid Bin Khalifa University College of Law and Public Policy
  • Nilufer Oral
, Faculty of Law, Istanbul Bilgi University; 
Member, United Nations International Law Commission; Member, IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law
  • Luciano Parejo Alfonso, Administrative Law Professor Emeritus, Carlos III de Madrid University
  • Jorge E. Viñuales, Professor of Law and Environmental Policy, University of Cambridge
  • Alex L. Wang, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law


David R. Boyd

Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, United Nations Human Rights Council

Although there are more than 1,000 international environmental agreements, they are fragmented, inconsistent, and missing key principles. The Global Pact for the Environment has the potential to unify and strengthen international environmental law by filling crucial gaps and achieving universal recognition of key principles. Perhaps the most compelling example is the fundamental human right to a healthy and sustainable environment (Art. 1 of the Pact).

Because the main human rights treaties pre-dated the emergence of global environmental concerns, they do not include the right to a healthy environment. Nor is this right included in any global environmental treaty. Yet humans are wholly dependent upon the environment for safe water, clean air, nutritious food, a non-toxic environment, thriving biodiversity, and a stable climate. Thus failing to recognize the right to a healthy environment is a major gap in international environmental and human rights law.

The right to a healthy environment is accepted by the majority of States. Internationally, it is found in several regional conventions, ratified by approximately 120 States. Nationally, the right to a healthy environment enjoys constitutional recognition in more than 100 States, and is incorporated in legislation in more than 100 States. In total, 155 States are currently obligated to respect, protect and fulfill the right to a healthy environment.

However there is a large gap between the legal recognition of this right and the implementation of measures to effectively protect this right. Plus there are still 40 States where the right to a healthy environment is not recognized.

By filling this critical gap, the Global Pact would act as a catalyst in two powerful ways. First it would spur additional States to legally recognize environmental rights. Second, it would compel States where the right already enjoys legal recognition to take additional measures to protect it. Everyone, everywhere should enjoy the legal protection of their right to a healthy and sustainable environment.