Home Addressing the Triple Crisis (Climate, Biodiversity and Pollution): Non-regression and Harmony With Nature

Addressing the Triple Crisis (Climate, Biodiversity and Pollution): Non-regression and Harmony With Nature

Manon Rouby
Reading time : 7 minutes

The urgency of the situation needs not to be proven anymore. Stockholm +50 represents a once in a generation opportunity to provide clarity on existing rights and obligations of International Environmental Law, and both how those apply in new and changing contexts as well sending a strong signal about the direction of travel required to realise Harmony with Nature.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment adopted the Stockholm Declaration which opened a chapter of International Environmental Law (IEL). Since then, and for over fifty years, the notion of environmental law and policy has become mainstream in both the political and legal spheres. However, after 50 years of international negotiations and legal evolutions, it has been unanimously established that IEL “has failed to address the grand challenges of the 21st century.”[1]

Indeed, notwithstanding the unequivocal development of International Environmental Law & Policies around the world, “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating.”[2] Even more alarming, since the Stockholm Declaration “the global population is two times larger, while the world GDP per person is also 2.5 times larger, so in roughly 50 years, our total impact has increased five-fold. […] As a result, we are crossing planetary boundaries, overheating the planet, exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity and decimating the biosphere.”[3]

As we have entered the ‘sixth massive mass extinction,’[4] the scales and challenges of such an unprecedented phenomenon require adequate means and specific measures. It is thus our responsibility, to make the High-Level Declaration in 2022 a steppingstone in the future of International Environmental Law and Policy, just as Stockholm was then. If the Stockholm Conference is the beginning of IEL, Stockholm +50 provides a rare opportunity to build a unified approach on IEL and get States to look at the environmental issues beyond silos and individual treaty bodies in a more holistic way.

As we have entered the ‘sixth massive mass extinction,’ the scales and challenges of such an unprecedented phenomenon require adequate means and specific measures.

While these challenges are complex and interconnected, they create opportunities for creativity and vision as well as cooperation between diverse stakeholders. As Frank Biermann explained, the environmental law paradigm is defined “as a traditionally widely shared belief (a) that a definable ‘environment’ exists outside the human sphere that needs to be protected by humans and their political institutions; and (b) that ‘environmental’ institutions and policies are the right way of dealing with such challenges, as entities distinct from economic, health, food, or agricultural institutions.”[5] A paradigm shift is needed to address the ecological crisis.

The recent political developments as well as the crises that have been happening show that several risks are threatening international peace and environment: (1) opposition to environmental rights from some countries, notwithstanding progress made last year at the Human Rights Council;[6] (2) a risk of regression weighing on the final text of the political declaration adopted at the Fifth Session of The United Nations Environment Assembly from 28 February to 2 March 2022:[7] and (3) international peace and human rights have been threatened by the action of Russia against Ukraine which has breached “international humanitarian law and international human rights law”[8].

Thus, the importance of corroborating the legal value of the principle of non-regression as well as the need to accentuate our harmony with nature within the declaration or a future Global Pact for the Environment itself, are both essential nexus for the future of IEL and for international law in general.

The Aarhus Convention was the first environmental legally binding instrument to link the protection of the environment with human rights already enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and every international and regional treaty for the protection of fundamental rights hereinafter: the right to receive information, the right to participate in public decision-making processes and the right to effective judicial protection.

1/ The principle of non-regression

Nearly fifty years of important legal developments have passed since the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the Declaration on the Human Environment. The 2022 Declaration[9] should, thus, effectively foster the advancement of IEL by codifying these improvements such as most of the newly recognized principles. These, for example, would include the “principle of non-regression and the principle of participation of non-state actors,”[10] as well as the cooperation principle. All steppingstones in international law and governance.

First acknowledged in the context of international human rights law, the principle of non-regression has been codified in 2016 by principle 12 of the IUCN World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law; as well as within sectoral treaties, at global or regional level such as the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate, justifying, therefore, its relevance in the context of environmental law.

In the context of human rights, the principle of non-regression (also known as non-retrogression) is a central component of the obligation laying on States to ensure the progressive realization of economic and social rights. Not only legislation, but also ‘strategies, policies and programmes’ must be enacted in a manner so as to not detract from established levels of enjoyment of human rights unless “justified by reference to the totality of [socio-economic] rights.”[11]

Therefore, beyond its relevance in IEL, the principle of non-regression is also relevant when addressing issues that are emerging more deeply from the international law framework. Indeed, notwithstanding a softening of the contours of international public and private law, IEL remains centred on inter-State relations. At the heart of these relations is the notion of sovereignty, accordingly to its traditional Westphalian conception. Whilst sovereignty is and will remain essential to international law, some of its misconceptions have failed to efficiently protect the environment. These misconceptions, by wrongly asserting “the independence of States and a separation of the domestic and international spheres,”[12] are obstacles for international law to commonly regulate transnational issues. More importantly, since protecting the Earth ecosystem, understood as ‘common good’[13], self-evidently requires common actions.

Consequently, considering the recent political developments, as well as the noticeable lack of ambition coming from several States during the Special Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) on 3 and 4 March 2022, it is appearing even more relevant to enhance this principle within the Declaration. By codifying this principle within IEL, global cooperation between international actors and harmony with nature will be clarified, reiterating that they are necessary principles to navigate the Anthropocene. Without strong international cooperation and efficient resources and information sharing, environmental protection efforts in the era of the Anthropocene are likely to fail.[14]

Finally, States need to cooperate and implement the non-regression principle, but also the different disciplines involved in environmental protection including law, economy, science, and political science, considering that international peace is now being threatened in Europe, illustrating the gravity and urgency of the current political situation.

2/ Earth System Law and rights of nature

As addressed before, anthropocentrism and State-centrism are one of the reasons IEL failed to properly address the Anthropocene crisis. Thus, new approaches and analyses of IEL need to be considered in the future. For instance, the Earth system law, as stipulated by the Earth Charter, offers relevant solutions and should be a subject of international law. What is being looked for here is “an adaptive system-oriented body of law [that] simultaneously respect planetary-scale tipping points and pay due consideration to the dynamic interconnections of Earth system components, while embracing the complexity of interacting planetary boundaries and safeguarding the integrity of Earth’s life-support systems.”[15] Consequently, Earth system law by addressing pressing problems in the governance from the local through the global level has “the potential to develop into an autonomous analytical and normative track of the larger Earth system governance agenda”[16] necessary to navigate into the Anthropocene.

Correlatively to Earth System law, and considering the urgency of the environmental global crisis, the Rights of Nature offer a vision to spur a necessary legal shift towards a more eco-centric and long-term approach to environmental protection. However, these rights need to be accompanied by rights-based laws to ensure that living systems are effectively protected and moving beyond unsustainable, short-term dominations of human beings and/or the economy. On that note, it is important to highlight that the recognition of the rights of nature is not exclusive to the rights of humans. “It rather offers long-term perspectives, reciprocity, complementarity and supports inter-species justice (between humans and non-humans). This moves beyond Human Rights by providing a balance between purely human interests (economic, social etc) and environmental interests (which ultimately benefit all humans by securing a healthy ecosystem).”[17]

Furthermore, a recognition of such rights has already been made in several national legal systems, and should, thus, be developed internationally. As the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth highlights “each being [human and non-human] has the right to a place and to play in Mother Earth for her harmonious functioning”[18], thus, enabling the legal conception of rights for humans and non-humans coming together as a community of right’s holders on Earth.

Finally, by legally acknowledging the rights of nature for its intrinsic rights, we also provide protection for its components, including human beings (current and future generations).

Consequently, the 2022 Declaration should have embraced the concept of rights of Nature as “they can provide a foundation for progression, a safety net against regression of environmental protection and support a necessary ethical and normative paradigm shift.”[19]

Stockholm +50 represents a once in a generation opportunity to provide clarity on existing rights and obligations of IEL, and both how those apply in new and changing contexts as well sending a strong signal about the direction of travel required to realise Harmony with Nature.

In conclusion, “Nature is a complex inter-related system and environmental challenges today require new thinking and social-ecological system-based approaches.”[20] Although careful thinking and complex legal mechanisms are needed to efficiently address these interconnected global crises, the warning is getting louder and more urgent. As scientists recently stated “the cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet now threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends.”[21] The chemical-pollution planetary boundary is the fifth of nine that scientists say have been transgressed, with the others being global heating, the destruction of wild habitats, loss of biodiversity and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

The urgency of the situation needs not to be proven anymore. Stockholm +50 too, represents a once in a generation opportunity to provide clarity on existing rights and obligations of IEL, and both how those apply in new and changing contexts as well sending a strong signal about the direction of travel required to realise Harmony with Nature.

[1]  Frank Biermann (2020): The future of ‘environmental’ policy in the Anthropocene: time for a paradigm shift, Environmental Politics 30 (1-2), p.3.

[2] UN Sustainable Development Goals, ‘UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’: Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ (6 May 2019),

[3] T. Hancock (2022), ‘Trevor Hancock: Let’s not make the next 50 years a repeat of the last’, Times Colonist (accessed the 18th January 2022).

[4] CELDF, ‘Blog: It’s Time: Rights of Nature in the UK’ (2019) (accessed 18th January 2019).

[5] Frank Biermann (2020): The future of ‘environmental’ policy in the Anthropocene: time for a paradigm shift, Environmental Politics 30 (1-2), p.3.

[6] United Nations Human Rights Council, resolution 48/13, 8 october 2022.

[7] Global Pact for the environment, ‘2022 Declaration: Report of the third consultation’ (23 February 2022)  (accessed 25 February 2022).

[8] Amnesty International, ‘Further armed conflict in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for the human rights of millions’ (28 January 2022)  (accessed 25 February 2022).

[9] UNEA 5.2, February 28- March 2, 2022, 2022 Political Declaration. 

[10] Inputs of the International Centre for Comparative Environmental Law (CIDCE) in view of the Second Substantive Session of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group established pursuant to Resolution 72/277 “Towards a Global Pact for the Environment”

[11] CESCR General Comment No. 3: The Nature of States Parties’ Obligations (Art. 2, Para. 1, of the Covenant).

[11] Living law, ‘Earth System Governance in Turbulent Times: Prospects for Political & Behavioural Responses #ESG2021’ September 2021 (Accessed 10th February 2022).

[13] Magalhães P., Steffen W., Galli A., “The Amazon paradox: Recognizing the global contribution of regional ecosystems is vital to combatting climate change and environmental collapse”, (Together first, 5 November 2019)  (Accessed 10th February 2022).

[14] Ibid supra n°7, Living Law Earth System Governance.

[15] Kotzé L, Kim R, “Earth system law: the juridical dimensions of earth system governance”, (2019) 1 Earth System Governance 1 p.6.

[16] Ibid, supra 8 p. 10.

[17] Ibid supra n°7, Living Law Earth System Governance.

[18] Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, Article 2(2).

[19] Living Law, ‘Legal & Policy Update, April 2021: Rights of Nature’  (accessed 28th January 2022)

[20] Ibid supra n°7, Living Law Earth System Governance.

[21] The guardian D. Carrington ‘Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists’ (18 January 2022)  (accessed 28th January 2022).