Eleventh Annual Grotius Lecture

Article excerpt

The lecture began at 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 25, and was given by Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme; the discussant was Dinah Shelton of the George Washington University Law School.

FOCUSING ON THE GOOD OR THE BAD: WHAT CAN INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL LAW DO TO ACCELERATE THE TRANSITION TOWARDS A GREEN ECONOMY?

I wish to begin by thanking the American University Washington College of Law for inviting me to deliver the 2009 Grotius Lecture. This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of The Freedom of the Seas. (1) I doubt that Hugo Grotius in 1609 knew the profound impact that his treatise would have on the world economy.

The notion that the seas were international territory and all nations were free to use them for seafaring trade--what is now a basic principle of international maritime law--led to opposition that sparked the First Anglo-Dutch War. Yet, the principles of free trade and economic freedom advocated then persist today.

There is an important lesson that Grotius taught us: that law can be a conduit for transformative economic change. As the Freedom of the Seas provided an important foundation for international free trade, I believe that law has a critical role to play in providing the foundation for accelerating the transition towards a green economy.

This presentation explores how international law can, and must, work to support the transition to a green economy. In doing so, I highlight areas where I think that international law has a critical role to play; but, in the end, we will need people like you--the eminent experts in the field--to ensure that international law works to help and not hinder the transition.

But before I do this, I would like to say a few words about what is a green economy.

WHAT IS A GREEN ECONOMY: WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS?

The global financial crisis has been devastating, but, in every crisis, there arises an opportunity. Leaders around the world have seen such an opportunity and are creating stimulus packages that will not only create economic recovery but will also build on green fundamentals of energy efficiency and diversification, waste minimization, and sensible use of natural resources.

While it is clear that governments and the international community face multiple and serious challenges, the situation also presents real opportunities to make profound changes in our economies: moving toward a green and low carbon economy will deliver multiple benefits for the international community and governments in addressing food, energy, and water security and will ultimately result in achieving sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

We also have an opportunity to re-examine the capacity of governance structures at the national and global levels to assess whether they are adequate to meet multiple environmental and development challenges and whether they are flexible enough to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

The term "green economy" as defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2) describes an economic system that recognizes the properties of healthy ecosystems as the backbone of economic and social well-being and as a precondition for poverty reduction. This means that nature is integral to the design and planning process so that the notion of infrastructure is extended to food production, the use of raw materials, and provisions for wildlife. A green economy is a system in which the costs arising from the degradation of ecosystems are internalized--where industries that employ clean and efficient technologies and where agriculture is sustainable serve as major engines of economic growth, job creation, and poverty reduction.

In hard terms, our analysis at UNEP finds that this means, among other things, investing at least $60-90 billion per year in sustainable environmental management in the developing world, which is necessary to reduce environment-related poverty alone; a re-alignment of agricultural subsidies, currently amounting to more than $300 billion a year, toward sustainable agriculture, forestry, and fisheries; a shift from subsidies for fossil fuels, currently estimated at $240-310 billion per year or around 0. …