At the heart of the international environmental governance system lies the body of legal principles and agreements that collectively constitute international environmental law. Although international environmental agreements have existed for centuries, the number, scope, and complexity of these agreements has increased considerably since the 1940s. By the mid-2000s, there were more than 500 multilateral environment agreements (MEAs) in existence. Around 270 of these MEAs were broad international agreements, while the remainder had a regional focus and a relatively limited number of signatories. Not surprisingly, these agreements cover a wide range of topics, including climate change, biodiversity, transport and disposal of hazardous materials, and fisheries management.
One of the most basic principles of international environmental law is that, while states have sovereignty over the resources in their jurisdiction, no state has the right to use or permit the use ofits territory in such a manner as to cause injury to the another's territory, person, or property. This principle, which is generally traced to the Trail Smelter Dispute that commenced in the 1920s between Canada and the United States, concerns environmental obligations between particular states (i.e., reciprocal obligations).
Growing awareness of the interrelated nature of natural systems and the scale of environmental problems in the later part of the twentieth century resulted in growing support for the notion that states should also have obligations to protect global commons and the interests of humanity, including future generations. This has led to the formation of a significant number of international agreements that promote the protection of a broader range of interests in the environment. The guiding principle regarding the rights of states to exploit natural resources is now viewed as incorporating a fundamental duty to protect global commons. For example, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) provides that states have a ''responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction''. There are also a number of international agreements, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that seek to protect certain aspects of the environment for 'the benefit of present and future generations of humankind'.
The notion of sustainable development has been a common element of MEAs since the late 1980s and 1990s. This has led to greater concern about intragen-erational equity and encouraged the inclusion of the so-called principle of 'common but differentiated responsibility' in MEAs. This principle has two parts. The first is that states have a shared responsibility for the protection of the environment, or relevant parts of it. The second part is that the extent to which each individual state is responsible for environmental protection should be determined with regard to the state's capacity to respond and historical contribution to the relevant problem. One of the clearest articulations of the principle is found in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), where it provides that
States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit to sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.
The principle of common but differentiated responsibility also features prominently in the UNFCCC (1992) and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol) (1987). For example, Article 3(1) of the UNFCCC states that
The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
Was this article helpful?