New way forward: Sustainable development and environmental law – The Manila Times – The Manila Times


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SUSTAINABLE development is often equated with “development without destruction,” which means sustainable utilization of resources for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural elements of the ecosystem. It is the wise use of the environment, which connotes sustainable utilization for the benefit of mankind in harmony with the maintenance of the natural elements of the ecosystem. It is a forward-looking development.

Environmental law, on the other hand, establishes rights and duties of individuals, communities and industries in the use of environmental resources, including the sets of mandatory quality standards, and assigns powers, responsibilities and liabilities in respect of environmental management. Its main concern is to govern the relationship of man and his environment.

Historically, what was originally labeled as natural resources laws are actually laws that are “use-oriented” or designed for the maximum exploitation and development of natural resources as compared to the new environmental legislation, which is “resource-oriented” or designed for the rational management and conservation of natural resources in order to prevent their depletion or degradation. Simply explained forestry law in the beginning meant cutting trees for profit, but now it is cutting trees and planting new ones at the same time for the benefit of the coming generations.

In the course of time, the two sets of legislation came to be labeled as “green legislation” for natural resources laws and “brown legislation” for pollution control, chemical-related and waste management laws. In recent legal literature, the two came to be known as environmental law, a new course in many law schools around the world. (The Philippines is one of the few countries where environmental law is a 3-unit compulsory subject in all law schools in the country.)

Sustainable development goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interlinked goals designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The SDGs set in place by the UN General Assembly are as follows: 1) no poverty; 2) zero hunger; 3) good health and well-being; 4) quality education; 5) gender equality; 6) clean water and sanitation; 7) affordable and clean energy; 8) decent work and economic growth; 9) industry, innovation and infrastructure; 10) reducing inequality; 11) sustainable cities and communities; 12) responsible production and consumption; 13) climate action; 14) life below water; 15) life on land; 16) peace, justice and strong institutions; and 17) partnerships for the goals.

The SDGs are intended to be achieved by 2030, but for some of the targets, no end date is given. Though the goals are broad, they are interdependent, meaning, there is recognition that action in one area will affect outcome in the others and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. As an example, climate action (SDG13) is connected to the goals on poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, etc. Viewed from another angle, the ongoing unprecedented health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic requires a lot to be done that it cannot be helped that the search for a global solution is often discussed alongside the SDGs relating to climate action, good health and well-being, clean water and sanitation, no poverty, zero hunger, and economic growth, among others.

In all this, developments in science ought not to be ignored. To cite an example, scientific assessment of climate change revealed forests support human well-being and are critical to end poverty, and that forest-poverty dynamics are affected by a range of social, economic, political and environmental context factors such as rural out-migration, gender norms, remittance flows, etc.

Environmental law vis-à-vis SDGs

How does environmental law fit in the shift from environmental protection to sustainable development as a central global agenda?

During the 1970s, governments were exhorted to establish an effective legal and regulatory framework in order to enhance national capacities to respond to the challenges of sustainable development by adjusting or fundamentally reshaping the decision-making process relating to environment and development.

Among the several trends in the evolution of environmental law vis-à-vis sustainable development are: crystallization of environmental issues in constitutional and policy documents (e.g., right to a healthy environment; sustainable use of natural resources); more comprehensive coverage of environmental issues (e.g., biodiversity conservation; management of hazardous wastes); establishment of environmental standards (e.g., air, water and noise quality standards; maximum level of emission of air-borne pollutants); use of economic instruments (e.g., tax incentives, polluter-pays-principle, environment funds); recognition of international environmental norms (e.g., institutional arrangements to give effect to multilateral environmental agreements; financial obligations required by treaties; environmental impact assessment); effective coordination of environmental management (e.g., ministries responsible for the environment; inter-agency committees for cross-sectoral coordination); measures for effective environmental law implementation and enforcement (e.g., environmental law compliance guidelines; enforcement procedures).

In this connection, the transition of environmental law to a law to achieve sustainable development can best be made by infusing the main body of development with ecological principles. This calls for a re-examination of the property rights principle, banking operations, the tax code as well as by a sector-by sector examination of the laws governing agriculture, climate change, energy, transportation, manufacturing, etc. By tailoring environmental law more closely to the patterns of human behavior, law administration and enforcement will be more efficient and environmental law will blend with other areas of law, thus strengthening respect for and effectiveness of the law to fulfill the SDG 2030 Agenda.

To cite examples, concentration in water as a resource is on availability and less on water pollution prevention, or on saving protected areas but not checking on soil erosion, or on protecting endangered species but not on biological diversity. Worse is the regulation of the same activity by many government agencies like pollution from mining, pollution from industry and even coastal pollution.

Let us take groundwater as another example. Groundwater is being withdrawn for irrigation much faster than it can be recharged. The need to control groundwater pollution and its conservation is an intricate regulatory challenge. Most often, agriculture law entangles with pollution control and resource laws with tax measures and reform should be one which could lead to an integrated scheme aimed at sustainable economy and, ultimately, sustainable ecology or, rightly, the sustainable development goals.

Perhaps, a simpler example would be health laws vis-à-vis climate change law. This would entail study of the laws on economics, food security, climate change, waste management, biodiversity conservation, energy, air and water pollution control, to mention a few, examining their consistency in promoting sustainability. Indeed, the use of environmental law to achieve the SDGs requires the use of all legal tools optimally.

Be that as it may, for national environmental legislation, effective implementation and enforcement remain as the most daunting challenges especially for developing countries. How the matter is resolved will largely determine the capacity of the legal arrangements to effectively contribute towards the realization of the objectives of sustainable development. For, in the final analysis, ineffective law may be worse than no law at all.

As can be gleaned, attainment of the sustainable development goals requires not only appropriate and adequate legal and institutional regimes for environmental management, but even more importantly, effective environmental law implementation and enforcement.


The discussion above leads to the broad level of awareness, of understanding the existential context in which we as humans are part of nature and interact with the elements in it. In environmental governance, this is known as the concept of environmental unity, which could be stated as “everything is connected to everything else.” Environmental unity encourages a more comprehensive interdisciplinary approach. If people involved in environmental protection were to approach their work with greater awareness of the unity and finite state of nature, we could work much more effectively toward harmony with nature.

Sustainable development has gone a long way from a mere concept into a principle with normative value. As changes are made through legislation, sustainable development can help define the path toward increasing preservation of the dignity of nature and of the dignity of humanity within it.

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