2 September 2019

Inspiring 3 days European Environmental Law Forum-Conference in Utrecht explored the role of law as a driver and facilitator of sustainability transitions processes.

Environmental Law for Transitions to Sustainability

With more than 150 participants from Europe and beyond, 32 parallel session, most of which fully booked, and plenaries with excellent speakers from several disciplines the 7th EELF conference succeeded in thoroughly discussing the role, content and frame of legal instruments in transition processes to a low-carbon and circular economy, sustainable water resource management and sustainable biodiversity.   

The keynote speakers challenged the audience to discuss and develop new legal answers to manifest and fundamental ecological problems. According to Frank Biermann (Utrecht University), the world needs new legal and governance structures as state sovereignty and international treaty-making are insufficiently tackling current environmental problems. The plea to prioritize ecological SDGs (Robin Kundis Craig, University of Utah) was heavily discussed. Her demand to further research the way environmental law can stimulate adaptive environmental governance which is necessary because of climate change, slow environmental law reforms and new knowledge on risks and the state of environment was discussed in depth in many parallel sessions.  Hugo von Meijenfeldt (Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) discussed how the Netherlands is progressing with the implementation of the SDGs, stressing that the gender issue is a major challenge for the Netherlands. Although the SDGs are not legally binding, many of the SDGs are already backboned by legal regulations and the SDGs should be considered a gift which provides a clear story for more actors in the environmental field. Köck and Reese (UFZ Leipzig) stressed the role of binding targets in environmental governance and, on the same hand, discussed the limits of this instrument. Advocate General Sharpston in her clearly stated message stressed the role of NGOs in bringing cases to the European Court of Justice thus helping the court to play its role in enforcing European environmental law. Smart litigators are urgently needed to force the court to open its doors for cases and judgments that will contribute to more sustainability.

More than 100 speakers, from early phds to eminent professors, analyzed the state of the art of sustainability law, identified gaps and inconsistencies and developed new ideas and recommendations. A scoreboard for the effectiveness of international environmental treaties was presented. Eckardt, who is suing the German government at the German Federal Constitutional Court for having insufficiently ambitious climate change plans and actions, argued that the Paris Agreement legally forces parties to reduce CO2-emissions to zero within two decades.

A series of sessions was dedicated to questions on how to improve actual implementation and application of water law, based on empirical and multidisciplinary studies in river basins over the world. Also new developments such as granting rights to rivers and nature were highly debated topics.  With more than 20 presentations on circular economy and law, EELF Utrecht most likely has been the most comprehensive event on this emerging (sub)topic in Europe to date.

The conference offered an ideal platform for connecting young and experienced researchers Europewide and beyond and provided much food for thought and further collaborative work, certainly not only within the legal discipline.

We once again express our gratitude for the support of Houthoff, Pels Rijcken and the Province of Utrecht which made the conference financially feasible.