The world’s population is living beyond its means. If we continue to burden the earth as we are doing, we will put our food, water and energy supplies in serious jeopardy. Amendments to environmental legislation could help us to reduce our ecological footprint. One solution could be to set international restrictions on environmental usage; a sort of quota on the use of natural resources. This is the gist of the arguments being put forward today by Prof. G.A. Biezeveld in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Environmental Law by special appointment at the University of Groningen.
Even today, environmental law is automatically explained as a way of protecting mankind and the environment from the dangers of pollution and damage from the environment itself: sound barriers are erected to prevent nuisance from noise, a ban has been imposed on discharging polluting substances to keep our groundwater clean. But this is no longer enough, according to Biezeveld. He would like to see environmental law impose restrictions on burdening the environment as a whole. Biezeveld: ‘It’s all very well setting limits on the amount of CO2 a car is allowed to emit, but if you do nothing to restrict the number of cars on the roads, the legislation will have precious little effect’.
In Biezeveld’s opinion, an international quota on environmental usage could prove to be a solution. Systems could be devised for deforestation and fishing, for example, which would work in much the same way as the current system for trading carbon emissions. They would include agreements about the maximum burden to ecosystems. The resulting quota would then be shared between all the countries in the world. Countries wishing to use more than their quota would be able to buy extra leeway from other countries. Biezeveld: ‘Countries would have to draw up a kind of environmental budget. In much the same way as Ministers are now accountable for their financial and economic policies on building, agriculture, fisheries, industry, power supplies, trade and transport, in future they would also be responsible for the environmental consequences of their policy in these sectors.’
Europe and the US should be at the forefront of introducing a system of environmental usage restrictions. Although we do not expect upcoming economies such as China, India and Brazil to head the field in developing international legislation, to Biezeveld’s mind, here too we are seeing a growing awareness of the need to save ecosystems. ‘Reducing our ecological footprint is not a luxury, but a necessity. Even China realises that it will benefit from agreements like this, that it too will need natural resources in the future.’ Biezeveld thinks it unavoidable that industry and consumers will initially try to resist large-scale change. ‘A system that leads to a smaller ecological footprint is the most difficult scenario. But the other options are much worse, as the American Jared Diamond once said.’
The Netherlands and the EU will have to spend the next few years working on adequate environmental legislation. The formation of a new European Commission after the forthcoming European elections and the next Cabinet formation will provide good opportunities to make new agreements, claims Biezeveld. But the current economic crisis can also be seen as a good reason to change the system. Biezeveld: ‘Now that we are reconsidering the organization of our economic system, we should also perhaps consider the underlying foundations. Ecosystems are the basis of our wellbeing and prosperity. We must develop a set of instruments to save these ecosystems. The sooner we begin, the less drastic the measures will need to be.’
Prof. Gustaaf A. Biezeveld (1947) is coordinating environmental officer for the justice department at the National Public Prosecutor’s Office for Financial, Economic and Environmental Offences, and has been Professor of Environmental Law by special appointment at the University of Groningen since July 2008. He was conferred with a PhD in 2002 at Tilburg University, with research into changes required in legislation and government organization for environmental and nature management in the Netherlands. The title of his inaugural lecture is: ‘Our ecological footprint. How environmental law can help to reduce it’.
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