Introduction: International Environmental Regimes and Sustainable Development

By Guimaraes, Roberto P. | International Journal of Economic Development, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Introduction: International Environmental Regimes and Sustainable Development


Guimaraes, Roberto P., International Journal of Economic Development


International regimes can be studied from different and complementary perspectives. Broadly speaking, these may be approached from the viewpoint of a system of rules and regulations between State and non-State actors governing a specific subject area (Krasner, 1983). They may also be perceived as a system of rights and (substantive) duties and obligations, with corresponding (objective) procedures and mechanisms to guarantee the enforcement of internationally adopted decisions concerning determined aspects of the global agenda (List and Ritterberg, 1992). Finally, one may study international regimes as a group of social institutions that govern explicit actions of collective actors with respect to the behavior of sovereign States (Young, 1989).

Insofar as environmental regimes are concerned (see, among others, Hurrell and Kingsbury, 1992), these have brought to the forefront of international relations radically different meanings to the traditional precepts of governance and sovereignty. Among other aspects, environmental regimes have unfolded new concepts of shared, yet differentiated, responsibilities with respect to the global commons. This facet implies that what is required of nation States in terms relinquishing portions of their sovereignty in favor of internationally adopted environmental decisions may be manifested in different ways, whether the nation in question is considered to be developed or less developed according to economic criteria, technological prowess or perceived responsibility in bringing about the environmental impact being addressed by the regime. On the other hand, environmental regimes have enshrined also important and unprecedented principles for international cooperation. The oldest, dating back to the early seventies, refer to the "polluter pays" principle, which means that nationally and internationally those actors responsible for actions hampering the environment should also bear the financial burden to redress their impacts.

Most likely, the truly revolutionary aspect of environmental regimes relate to the "precautionary" principle strengthened through the Climate Convention. Briefly stated, it postulates that scientific uncertainty about an environmental problem cannot be an excuse preventing effective action when the consequences of said problem may be irreversible or even catastrophic for humankind once scientific precision can be established. We may indeed consider the precautionary principle revolutionary both for international and national politics alike once we acknowledge its implications for other areas of public policy, particularly as they relate to risk assessment and prevention, as well as to consumer protection. It may suffice to imagine what will happen once consumer groups or governments decide to apply the precautionary principle to areas such as smoking or genetic engineering of agricultural and food products.

An additional characteristic of international environmental regimes pertains to the unforeseen and unprecedented weight of non-State and Civil Society actors, among these, environmental NGOs in general and the scientific community in the specific instance of climate change (see, for instance, Born, 1999). The emergence of these actors appears to respond to three related dynamics. First of all, the end of bi-polarization and the consequent decomposition of automatic alignments and ideological and power blocks dominating international relations. Secondly, the relative loss of significance of bi-lateral agreements and the strengthening of multilateral institutions, instruments and mechanisms to resolve international disputes. Thirdly, because environmental problems reveal the truly central and defining aspect of the term "globalization".

This last facet of environmental regimes deserves further comments. Globalization is often used, sometimes inadequately, to refer solely to the increasing interdependence of financial and commercial relations throughout the planet. …

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