International Law and Sustainable Development - Tools for Addressing Climate Change

Article excerpt

We are all in the same boat and we must learn to live responsibly - or we will sink together.

--Muhammad Yunus (1)


Climate change and the more recent threats to the natural life-support systems have heightened the focus on international cooperation, sustainable development, and further limits to State sovereignty in order to solve these global problems. Climate change is one of the biggest sustainable development challenges. Much of the progress made toward the goal of sustainable development will very likely be destroyed by climate change. In the context of the recent flooding in Pakistan, experts project that it will take years, maybe even decades, to replace the lost infrastructure. (2)

Only by integrating the paradigm of sustainable development in a more effective way into international and domestic law can certain irreversible climate change impacts be avoided. Despite recent set-backs in international negotiations, such as occurred in Copenhagen, international law has an important role to play by offering the legal framework which can promote a move toward sustainable development. The sustainable development principles, though most of them are not legally binding, are central to the interpretation, implementation, and further development of the climate change regime. Addressing climate change requires a paradigm shift towards "a low-carbon development strategy [which] is indispensable to sustainable development." (3)

The tension between developing and industrialized countries regarding economic development and protection of the environment has been on-going since the Stockholm Conference in 1972. However, in the context of climate change, the problem becomes critical. The anthropogenic effect on the climate system demands that strong action be taken now by all States to implement sustainable development to avoid the worst impacts. (4) The tipping point before the onset of catastrophe is no longer decades away. (5) It is in the mutual self-interest of nation states to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and implement sustainable development principles.

Climate change is a global problem that calls for international cooperation. Sustainable development implies the need for industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to address climate change, but also, I argue, to give room for developing countries to develop. (6) Developing countries will continue developing in order to eradicate poverty and, hence, they will require more of the polluting space in the atmosphere. (7) If we are to effectively tackle climate change, development in developing countries needs to be sustainable, enabling developing countries also to reduce their emissions. I will argue that providing technology, capacity-building, and financial assistance to developing countries through funds established under the climate change regime and other institutions will be the most urgent element to facilitate developing countries' participation in addressing climate change by taking "mitigation actions" alongside industrialized countries complying with their emission reduction commitments. Requiring funding as a condition for action by developing countries to address climate change, needs to be recognized as one of the core elements in the climate regime based on the principle of common, but differentiated responsibility. However, it is paramount that these funds are managed in a transparent and accountable manner and that there is a balanced representation of developed and developing countries in the decision-making bodies.

This paper will examine the concept of sustainable development in the context of climate change. In this process, I will first briefly describe its origin and development. Second, I will focus on the definition, core elements, and principles of sustainable development. Third, I will analyze the legal status of the sustainable development in international law, and finally, I will examine which of its principles apply to climate change and what implications this has for the design of current and future climate change agreements, with a particular focus on the transfer of technical and financial assistance. …