Growing awareness and legislative response

Table 5.1 lists nine documents that have had profound influence on current thinking about the effects of human activity on the environment. The pub­lications span a little less than 50 years. Over this period the approach to pollution and environmental law has evolved through a number of phases,[16] best summarized in the following way:

■ Ignore it: pretend it isn’t there

■ Dilute it: make the smokestack taller or pump it further out to sea

■ Fix it where it is a problem: the "end-of-pipe" approach

■ Prevent it in the first place: the first appearance of design for the environment

■ Sustainable development: life in equilibrium with the environment— the phase we are in now

Current thinking has stimulated national legislation and international protocols and agreements. The international agreements tend to be broad statements of intent. The national legislation, by contrast, tends to be spe­cific and detailed.

Historically, environmental legislation has targeted individual, obvious problems—dumping of toxic waste, lead in petrol, water pollution, ozone depletion—taking a command and control approach: "Thou shalt not" cast in modern terms. There is a growing recognition that this approach can lead to perverse effects, where action to fix one isolated problem simply

International treaties, protocols, and conventions 87

Table 5.1 Required reading: landmark publications

Date, author, and title


1962: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Meticulous examination of the consequences of the use of the pesticide DDT and of the impact of technology on the environment.

1972: Club of Rome, Limits to Growth

The report that triggered the first of a sequence of debates in the 20th century on the ultimate limits imposed by resource depletion.

1972: The Earth Summit in Stockholm

The first conference convened by the United Nations to discuss the impact of technology on the environment.

1987: The UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our common future

Known as the Brundtland Report, it defined the principle of sustainability as "Development that meets the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

1987: Montreal Protocol

The International Protocol to phase out the use of chemicals that deplete ozone in the stratosphere.

1992: Rio Declaration

An international statement of the principles of sustainability, building on those of the 1972 Stockholm Earth Summit.

1998: Kyoto Protocol

An international treaty to reduce the emissions of gases that, through the greenhouse effect, cause climate change.

2001: Stockholm Convention

The first of ongoing meetings to agree on an agenda for the control and phase­out of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

2007: IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis

This Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) establishes beyond any reasonable doubt the correlation between carbon in the atmosphere and climate change.

shifts the burden elsewhere and may even increase it. For this reason there has been a shift from command and control legislation toward the use of economic instruments—green taxes, subsidies, trading schemes—that seek to use market forces to encourage the efficient use of materials and energy. We have already seen that some activities create environmental burdens that have costs that are not paid for by the provider or user. These are called external costs, or externalities. A more effective approach is to trans­fer the costs back to the activity creating it, thereby internalizing them.