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International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers


International Environmental Law 101 is a series that will dive into the manifold dimensions of preserving the environment from human destruction and economic development. The main objective of these articles is to provide a comprehensible grasp of the institutions, agreements, and principles which fight against climate change, wildlife extinction, and contamination, and fight for sustainable practices.

International Environmental Law 101 will be predominantly divided into the following chapters:

1. International Environmental Law 101: How the Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement

2. International Environmental Law 101: A Regime of Principle

3. International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers

4. International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements

5. International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature

6. International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development

7. International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean

8. International Environmental Law 101: What will the Future Bring

In the last chapter of this series, the most fundamental principles of international environmental law were discussed and presented. These principles are the basis of the decisions and policy regulations that have been made over the years regarding the environment and climate change. The major stakeholders, institutions, and courts of justice use them for guidance and interpretation purposes whenever a situation strikes. But what are these institutions? Who are the individuals that have a say in these decisions? When a new directive is introduced, proposed, and brought to fruition, many wonder how it came to be.

Image 1. (Asia Climate Consortium, 2021)

The most important institution in the field of international environmental law is the United Nations Programme for the Environment. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was born within the first UN Conference for the Human Environment in Stockholm back in 1972. Environmental policy and cooperation are built inside its walls. Its main priority areas are climate change, environmental disasters and conflicts, ecosystem management, and the transition to a green economy. It records and supervises the state of the environment and then proposes new measures for restoration and preservation based on its findings.

UNEP provides the tools and scientific knowledge to all governments so they can develop decent national environmental legislations based on their needs and profiles. Its technical and administrative functions have contributed to the adoption of several multilateral agreements between nations. The decisions inside UNEP are taken by the Conference of Parties, which includes nations participating in the UN. Another body within UNEP is the UN Environment Assembly, a group of politicians that serve as Ministers of Environment for their countries and are accountable to citizens.

A point of interest is that after all these years it still remains a programme and not a global organization such as the World Trade Organization. Why do we have a global organization for trade but not for the environment?

Image 2. UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya (UNEP/Twitter, 2015)

Next in line in the series of important actors is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Initially, this was a programme that targeted pure development and quantitative growth with a goal to combat poverty. Similar to UNEP, it works as a knowledge broker, trainer, and technical assistant for other institutions. After the Rio Conference in 1992, the environmental component of development was integrated within the concept of the programme and it gradually became a tool for sustainable development. UNDP works to implement the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN Nations that are part of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Seventeen in number, these goals were conjured up in 2015 by the UN General Assembly and are the basic blueprint for protecting the environment and ensuring that people of this and future generations will be able to live with dignity and lead healthy and secure lives. The High-Level Political Forum, a separate institution, reviews the process of implementing these goals and provides a platform where groups, governments, and stakeholders can meet and exchange ideas every year. Its reviews are based on the reports that every country submits each year, called Voluntary National Reviews. It is still not mandatory for nations to submit a review. It is another testament to the general ‘soft law’ approach that is the bane of environmental law’s existence.

As more and more actors in the field of environmental law are presented, it becomes more evident that this is not a system with clear lines and edges. Stakeholders come together and follow a process in order to reach an agreement. Not one player has a clear advantage in decision-making over the other.

The system for environmental lawmaking is based on governance. Governance is a participatory model that perpetuates accountability. The specific goals of a particular project—in this case, environmental protection—are consolidated. The stakeholders organize their efforts, adopt procedures for policy production, discuss, vote, and implement cooperatively. It is a day-to-day operation that requires responsibility, interaction, and methodology.

Image 3. Receptiveness (Ethical Leadership, 2021)

The lines of issues that are interlinked are reflected in the web of institutions, programmes, courts, stakeholders, and regional organizations that are designed to provide a solution for them. The collaboration happens on three different levels: international, regional, and national. All three are quite self-explanatory, though it is important to note that at the national level, governments must abide by international and regional agreements that they are part of, and are forced to annul relative national policies that go against them. A country needs to conform to European Union (EU) regulations if they are part of the EU. European Union law is always greater than national law as the principle of the primacy of EU Law suggests.

Regionally, there are separate organizations—regional transnational regimes—that were founded to clear up certain issues. For example, countries around the Mediterranean have their own agreements and platforms for communicating and regulating ocean contamination or overfishing.

Internationally, UNEP and UNDP coordinate with each other. Other UN organizations that work in specific fields, like the Environment Management Group, will connect with the World Bank Group, the World Trade Organization, or the Global Environment Facility. The list of collaborators is endless. Therefore, the process of reaching a solution that everybody agrees on can become an agonizing process.

Image 4. Public Participation (IASS, 2021)

A positive characteristic is that in this governance model, the public can also participate and be a decision-maker. According to international environmental law principles, all individuals are allowed to participate in this process and have an opinion. Activists and citizens are allowed to observe UN conferences. This is why Greta Thunberg, a famous environmental activist, could show up at environmental symposiums and forums and make her voice heard. The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters states that it is an obligation for the public to participate and have access to every single bit of information about the decision that has been made. It is crucial that public authorities take measures to enable the public’s integration.

Together, all these decision-makers assemble the United Nations System for Environmental Governance. They are interlinked with a special bond and a special goal. To save the environment, they will have to put away their differences and merge to become one sole decision-maker.


Academy of European Law. (n.d.). Participatory and procedural rights in environmental matters. Participatory and Procedural Rights in Environmental Matters - Environment - European Commission. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. United Nations. ( June 25, 1998) Treaties.UN. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from

Environment, U. N. (n.d.). About UN environment programme. UNEP. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Expertise: United Nations Development Programme. UNDP. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Know your rights. Environment Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Techera, E. J., Lindley, J., Scott, K. N., & Telesetsky, A. (2021). Routledge Handbook of International Environmental Law. Routledge.

United Nations. (n.d.). High-level political forum .:. sustainable development knowledge platform. United Nations. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

United Nations. (n.d.). Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development | department of economic and social affairs. Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from

Image Sources

Image 1. Admin. (2021, January 16). UNEP report calls for Urgent Climate Action: Asia Climate Change Consortium. Asia Climate Change Consortium | Asia for a 1.5 degree Centigrade world. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Image 2. UNEP. (2015). Unep Headquarters. Twitter. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Image 3. ENR/PAZ // University Communications: Web // University of Notre Dame. (n.d.). Notre Dame Deloitte center for ethical leadership. Get better at disagreement with this four-step "receptiveness recipe." // News // Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership // University of Notre Dame. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

Image 4. Dr. Aline Jaeckel, Dr. Rosine Kelz, Dr. Henrike Knappe, Niklas Scheffer, & Anke Kläver. (2021, November 17). Justice in Sustainability. Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from

For Greek Readers

Τσάλτας, Γ. (2017). Περιβάλλον: Διεθνής Προστασία, Πολιτική, Δίκαιο, Θεσμοί. Εκδόσεις Ι. Σιδέρης.

Πλατιάς, Χ. (2016). Πολιτική της ΕΕγια το Περιβάλλον και τη Βιώσιμη Ανάπτυξη, Ζητήματα πολιτικής διακυβέρνησης. Εκδόσεις Ι. Σιδέρης.

Author Photo

Konstantina Manta

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