Eleventh Annual Grotius lecture.

Author:Steiner, Achim
Position:Proceedings of the One Hundred Third Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: International Law as Law

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.


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.


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 0.7 percent of global GDP, to research and development on renewable energies.

Such investment and realignment can also be expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by some 6 percent by increasing energy efficiency while channelling revenues to people living in poverty. The green economy also presents substantial employment opportunities by creating jobs for rural and indigenous peoples based on the management of ecosystem goods and services valued at around $5 trillion. (3)

The shift towards a green economy under the UNEP Green Economy Initiative is based on three pillars:

--Appreciation of the full potential for environmental industries to become mainstream, sustainable economic activities;

--Understanding of, and solutions to, financial, policy, and institutional barriers to the shift towards a green economy;

--Strong government leadership in providing macroeconomic policy support for the transition.

The priority green economic sectors identified by UNEP are:

--Clean and efficient technologies, including renewable energy technologies and a focus on rural energy access;

--Biodiversity-based businesses, including agriculture, forestry, marine, and nature-based tourism;

--Ecological infrastructure, including nature reserves, protected areas, and watersheds;

--Chemicals and waste management, including waste reduction, recycling, and reuse;

--Low carbon cities, buildings, and transport.

The shift towards a green economy in a broad sense requires the adoption and implementation of coherent policies integrating economic, social, and environmental aspects. This requires collaboration between various sectoral ministries at the national level and cohesion between the organizations and institutions dealing with differing aspects of sustainable development at the international level.


Seventy-five years ago, at the nadir of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a series of wide-ranging programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. These programs, known collectively as the New Deal, (4) included construction of homes, hospitals, schools, and other public buildings as well as roads, dams, and electrical grids, apart from policy and institutional reforms. The New Deal put millions of people back to work and modernized the U.S. infrastructure at the same time.

Today's multiple crises demand the same kind of visionary government leadership, but at the global scale and embracing a wider vision. A Global Green New Deal (GGND) (5) is proposed as a manifestation of that leadership. It refers to a set of globally coordinated large-scale stimulus packages and policy measures that have the potential to bring about global economic recovery in the short term while laying the foundation for sustained economic growth in the medium and long term.

The world needs a GGND because: 1) the market has proven incompetent to resurrect itself from a failure of historical proportions without significant and coordinated government interventions; 2) "green sectors" such as renewable energy technologies have the prospect of leading the global economy recovery while addressing large-scale environmental degradation; and 3) the multiple crises are at the global level, affecting developing countries disproportionately and thus requiring fair and just global solutions.

The overall objectives of a GGND are to:

--revive the world economy, save and create jobs, and protect vulnerable groups;

--reduce carbon dependency and ecosystem degradation; and

--further the MDGs, including ending extreme poverty by 2025.

These objectives are to be achieved by including and implementing a number of common elements in the global responses to the prevailing financial and economic crisis. These elements fall under two categories: 1) incorporating major green sectors in stimulus packages; and 2) creating enabling conditions to ensure the success of green investments.

In promoting a GGND, the principle of "shared but differentiated responsibilities" must be upheld with regard to developed countries, emerging economies, countries with economies in transition, and least developed countries. The financial (and energy) crisis, which has triggered the call for a GGND, is largely the making of developed countries but has global impacts. The crisis is causing massive job losses worldwide and is hitting the poor in developing countries especially hard.

A fair and just GGND, therefore, should consider including additional support to developed countries, particularly the least developed countries, in the areas of finance, trade, technology, and capacity building. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that non-industrialized countries are on different development trajectories and have their particular circumstances, which justify their unique priorities when it comes to large-scale public spending programs and policy measures.

After mapping out the vision of a green economy, I now want to turn to the reason why we are gathered here--the role of law in delivering this vision.


The past forty years have witnessed an evolution in domestic and international environmental law. Early environmental law focused on command and control: to protect, to contain, and even to punish. Much of the focus of this law was on endangered or migratory species, specific ecosystems (such as wetlands or natural heritage), or trans-boundary ecosystems (watersheds, fiver basins, or mountain systems).

Following the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the development of law in these areas...

To continue reading