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International Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Towards a Purposive System of Multilateral Environmental Agreements

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 June 2013

Rakhyun E. Kim
Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra (Australia). Email:
Klaus Bosselmann
Faculty of Law, University of Auckland (New Zealand). Email:


Our point of analytical departure is that the state of the global environment is deteriorating despite the accumulating body of international environmental law. By drawing on the recent Earth system science concept of interlinked planetary boundaries, this article makes a case for a goal-oriented, purposive system of multilateral environmental agreements. The notion of ‘goal’ is used here to mean a single, legally binding, superior norm – a grundnorm – that gives all international regimes and organizations a shared purpose to which their specific objectives must contribute. A bird’s eye view of the international environmental law system reveals how the absence of a unifying goal has created a condition that is conducive to environmental problem shifting rather than problem solving. We argue that a clearly agreed goal would provide the legal system with a point of reference for legal reasoning and interpretation, thereby enhancing institutional coherence across Earth’s subsystems. To this end, this article concludes by observing that the protection of the integrity of Earth’s life-support system has emerged as a common denominator among international environmental law instruments. Accordingly, we suggest that this notion is a strong candidate for the overarching goal of international environmental law.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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111 Decision 2/CP.7, The Marrakesh Accords, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2001/13/Add.1, 21 Jan. 2002.

112 Sasaki, N. & Putz, F.E., ‘Critical Need for New Definitions of “Forest” and “Forest Degradation” in Global Climate Change Agreements’ (2009) 2(5) Conservation Letters, pp. 226–32; Glomsrød, S., Wei, T., Liu, G. & Aune, J.B., ‘How Well Do Tree Plantations Comply with the Twin Targets of the Clean Development Mechanism? – The Case of Tree Plantations in Tanzania’ (2011) 70(6) Ecological Economics, pp. 1066–74.

113 Agrawal, A., Nepstad, D. & Chhatre, A., ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’ (2011) 36(1) Annual Review of Environment and Resources, pp. 373–96; Putz, F.E. & Redford, K., ‘Dangers of Carbon-based Conservation’ (2009) 19(4) Global Environmental Change, pp. 400–1; Strassburg, B.B.N. et al. et al., ‘Global Congruence of Carbon Storage and Biodiversity in Terrestrial Ecosystems’ (2010) 3(2) Conservation Letters, pp. 98105.

114 Williamson, P. et al. et al., ‘Ocean Fertilization for Geoengineering: A Review of Effectiveness, Environmental Impacts and Emerging Governance’ (2012) 90(6) Process Safety and Environmental Protection, pp. 475–88; Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Scientific Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Fertilization on Marine Biodiversity (SCBD, 2009). See also Metz, B. et al. et al. (eds), Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007), at pp. 624–5.

115 Decision IX/16, Biodiversity and Climate Change, UN Doc. UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/IX/16, 9 Oct. 2008, at p. 7. See also Decision X/33, Biodiversity and Climate Change, UN Doc. UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/X/33, 29 Oct. 2010, at p. 5.

116 For general discussions on the legal dimension of ocean fertilization, see, e.g., Freestone, D. & Rayfuse, R., ‘Ocean Iron Fertilization and International Law’ (2008) 364 Marine Ecology Progress Series, pp. 227–33; Abate, R.S. & Greenlee, A.B., ‘Sowing Seeds Uncertain: Ocean Iron Fertilization, Climate Change, and the International Environmental Law Framework’ (2010) 27(2) Pace Environmental Law Review, pp. 555–98; Bertram, C., ‘Ocean Iron Fertilization in the Context of the Kyoto Protocol and the Post-Kyoto Process’ (2010) 38(2) Energy Policy, pp. 1130–9; VanderZwaag, D.L., ‘Ocean Dumping and Fertilization in the Antarctic: Tangled Legal Currents, Sea of Challenges’, in Berkman, P.A., Lang, M.A., Walton, D.W.H. & Young, O.R. (eds), Science Diplomacy: Antarctica, Science, and the Governance of International Spaces (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2011), pp. 245–52; Warner, R., ‘Marine Snow Storms: Assessing the Environmental Risks of Ocean Fertilization’ (2009) 3(4) Carbon and Climate Law Review, pp. 426–36.

117 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, London (United Kingdom), 29 Dec. 1972, in force 30 Aug. 1975, available at:

118 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972, London (United Kingdom), 7 Nov. 1996, in force 24 Mar. 2006, available at:

119 See, e.g., Zeebe, R.E., Zachos, J.C., Caldeira, K. & Tyrrell, T., ‘Carbon Emissions and Acidification’, (2008) 321(5885) Science, pp. 51–2.

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121 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kyoto (Japan), 11 Dec. 1997, in force 16 Feb. 2005, available at:

122 Kim, R.E., ‘Is a New Multilateral Environmental Agreement on Ocean Acidification Necessary?’ (2012) 21(3) Review of European Community and International Environmental Law, pp. 243–58; Baird, R., Simons, M. & Stephens, T., ‘Ocean Acidification: A Litmus Test for International Law’ (2009) 3(4) Carbon and Climate Law Review, pp. 459–71; Harrould-Kolieb, E.R. & Herr, D., ‘Ocean Acidification and Climate Change: Synergies and Challenges of Addressing Both under the UNFCCC’ (2012) 12 Climate Policy, pp. 378–89; Lamirande, H.R., ‘From Sea to Carbon Cesspool: Preventing the World’s Marine Ecosystems from Falling Victim to Ocean Acidification’ (2011) 34(1) Suffolk Transnational Law Review, pp. 183217.

123 Baird, Simons & Stephens, ibid.

124 UNFCCC, n. 77 above, Art. 4(1)(d); Kyoto Protocol, n. 121 above, Art. 2(1)(a)(ii).

125 Ocean iron fertilization could, in theory, reduce the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and hence the rate of ocean acidification in the upper ocean. However, if deployed on a climatically significant scale, this approach would relocate acidification from the upper ocean to mid- or deep water, where biota may be more sensitive to pH changes: Cao, L. & Caldeira, K., ‘Can Ocean Iron Fertilization Mitigate Ocean Acidification?’ (2010) 99(1–2) Climatic Change, pp. 303–11; Caldeira, K. & Duffy, P.B., ‘The Role of the Southern Ocean in Uptake and Storage of Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide’ (2000) 287(5453) Science, pp. 620–2; Williamson, P. & Turley, C., ‘Ocean Acidification in a Geoengineering Context’ (2012) 370(1974) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, pp. 4317–42.

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142 Vienna (Austria), 23 May 1969, in force 27 Jan. 1980, available at:

143 VCLT, ibid., Art. 31(3)(c).

144 We note that the formulation of Article 31(3)(c) has been criticized as unclear both in its substantive and temporal scope and its normative force. See, e.g., Linderfalk, U., ‘Who Are “The Parties”? Article 31, Paragraph 3(c) of the 1969 Vienna Convention and the “Principle of Systemic Integration” Revisited’ (2008) 55(3) Netherlands International Law Review, pp. 343–64; McLachlan, C., ‘The Principle of Systemic Integration and Article 31(3)(c) of the Vienna Convention’ (2005) 54(2) International and Comparative Law Quarterly, pp. 279319; Tzevelekos, V.P., ‘The Use of Article 31(3)(c) of the VCLT in the Case Law of the ECtHR: An Effective Anti-Fragmentation Tool or a Selective Loophole for the Reinforcement of Human Rights Teleology?’ (2010) 31 Michigan Journal of International Law, pp. 621–90.

145 Xue Hanqin’s remark during the debates in the International Law Commission on the significance of Article 31(3)(c): ILC, n. 141 above, at p. 211.

146 Kauffman, S., At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford University Press, 1995). For a general introduction to complex adaptive systems, see, e.g., Holland, J.H., Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (Perseus Books Group, 1995); Levin, S.A., Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons (Perseus Books Group, 1999); Miller, J.H. & Page, S.E., Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton University Press, 2007); Mitchell, M., Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, 2009).

147 Kauffman, ibid, at p. 267.

148 Steiner, Kimball & Scanlon, n. 21 above.

149 Possibilities include fundamental ethical change promoted through a global treaty or the Earth Charter (see, e.g., Taylor, n. 74 above, at pp. 323–44), jurisprudential advancements through academic literature or judicial reasoning, or incremental changes through legal agreements or institutional reform. See Bugge & Voigt, n. 33 above.

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154 Ibid., Preamble.

155 See, e.g., Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean, Barcelona (Spain), 10 Jun. 1995, in force 12 Dec. 1999, available at:

156 N. 65 above.

157 N. 66 above.

158 Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development, UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26, 14 Jun. 1992, available at:

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160 The Earth Charter Initiative, The Earth Charter (The Earth Charter Initiative, 2000), available at:

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162 N. 30 above.

163 Rio Declaration, n. 66 above, Preamble.

164 Rio Declaration, ibid., Principle 7.

165 World Charter for Nature, n. 65 above, Principle 4.

166 Earth Charter, n. 160 above, Principle 5.

167 Draft International Covenant, n. 159 above, Art. 2. This was reflected in the text upon consulting with the drafters of the Earth Charter to ensure consistency among the principles set forth in both texts.

168 Bosselmann, n. 32 above, at pp. 162–74.

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171 Rockström et al., n. 3 above.

172 Griggs et al., n. 170 above.

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