ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS IN PENNSYLVANIA

Posted on July 13, 2018 by John Dernbach

One year ago—June 20, 2017—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on constitutional environmental rights.  The case, Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (PEDF), has implications that will take decades to sort out, as subsequent litigation is making clear.  And it may contribute to re-imagining of environmental law.

Almost a half century earlier—May 18, 1971—Pennsylvania voters adopted by a four-to-one margin an amendment to Article I of the state constitution, which is the state’s Declaration of Rights.  Section 27 provides:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Because Pennsylvania courts were concerned about its impact on development, and because the first two cases brought under Section 27 had weak facts, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court in 1973 (Payne v. Kassab) articulated a three-part balancing test as a substitute for the text.  The test was easy to apply and, as a 2015 article shows, those seeking to vindicate environmental rights almost never won.  More fundamentally, the test had nothing to do with environmental rights, much less the text of Section 27. The Payne decision evinced the kind of judicial activism—or more precisely, judicial rewriting of the constitution—that the late Justice Antonin Scalia criticized.  But for more than 40 years, it was the law of Pennsylvania.

In PEDF, the petitioner challenged the state’s expenditure of hundreds of million dollars of funds from gas leasing on state forest land.  (Disclosure: I filed an amicus curiae brief in this case.)  PEDF argued that both state forests and the gas under them constituted “public natural resources” under Section 27, and that royalties and other money received from leasing must be spent to “conserve and maintain” those resources, and not used to balance the state’s budget.  A majority of the Supreme Court agreed.  In so doing, the Court held that the text of Section 27 is of primary importance in interpreting the Amendment, specifically setting aside the Payne v. Kassab balancing test.

The revitalization of Section 27 has led to a spate of environmental rights claims in litigation, much of it involving permits for shale gas drilling facilities and gas pipelines.  The Supreme Court appears to be charting a future course on Section 27 with caution.  In Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township (June 1, 2018), which was widely anticipated to further develop the law of Section 27, the Court instead decided the case based on the meaning of the township zoning ordinance.

A major outstanding question is what Section 27 means for day-to-day environmental permitting.  The large number of environmental statutes and regulations adopted and strengthened after 1971 provide much of the protection that Section 27 now also provides.  Here, Section 27 is most likely to make a difference when a litigant can demonstrate that the applicable regulatory program contains a significant gap (e.g., cumulative effects).

A broader question is what constitutional environmental rights can mean for environmental regulation as we know it, in which decisions are influenced by, and often based on, consideration of costs and benefits.  In Friends of Lackawanna v. Commonwealth, the Environmental Hearing Board (EHB), which hears appeals from decisions by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said in late 2017 that the people living near a landfill who are adversely affected by odors are not simply part of the costs and benefits calculus in municipal waste management; they have constitutional rights.   If DEP did not do a better job of protecting them, the EHB warned, it would.  And under the radar, I am told, the revitalization of Section 27 has caused some bad project proposals to quietly go away.

Widener University Commonwealth Law School has published a listing of available Section 27 resources with links. A lot is happening, and there is more to come.

FINDING LEGAL PATHWAYS TO DEEP DECARBONIZATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Posted on July 21, 2016 by John Dernbach

On December 12, 2015, in Paris, France, the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—a total of 196 countries—unanimously agreed to a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.  For the United States, the technical and logistical challenge of achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement (as it is called) is enormous, but so is the legal challenge.

The U.S. short-term emissions reduction objective, stated in a submission made in the run-up to the Paris conference, is “to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below its 2005 level in 2025.”  This objective, the U.S. says, “is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”   Achieving the short-term goal depends on the outcome of the presidential election as well as litigation involving the Clean Power Plan.  And there was, until recently, no roadmap for deep U.S. reductions by 2050. 

The absence of long-term analysis, in the U.S. and other countries, is being filled by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.  It is based on the work of research teams in 16 countries that are responsible for 74 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions--Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  DDPP says in a report synthesizing the findings of the project to date that most of these countries “had never developed pathways consistent with a global 2°C limit, nor were they actively considering this question.”   (The purpose of the Climate Change Convention is to keep the increase in global temperatures from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions below a “dangerous” level.  That level is widely regarded as 2°C, or 3.6 °F, above pre-industrial levels, although the Paris Agreement seeks to keep the increase “well below” that level.  The temperature increase to date is already about 0.9 °C above 1880 levels, when temperatures were first recorded.)

DDPP has conducted a technical analysis and policy analysis of pathways to deep decarbonization for the United States.  These reports, prepared by E3 (an energy consulting firm), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, appear to be the most detailed studies of how to achieve deep reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  

Perhaps the DDPP’s most important finding “is that it is technically feasible for the U.S. to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions from fossil fuel combustion” by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050, which is “an order of magnitude decrease in per capita emissions compared to 2010.”  If the U.S. did that, it could reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  

Enormous changes would be required in the U.S. energy system to make those reductions happen.  Because it is difficult to decarbonize gasoline and liquid fuels, the researchers said, meeting the 2050 objective would require almost complete decarbonization of electricity and, among other things, switching a “large share” of end uses that require gasoline and liquid fuels over to electricity (such as electric cars).  It would also be necessary to produce fuel from electricity itself, they said, citing the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis as an example. 

Decarbonizing electricity and producing fuel from electricity itself would double electricity generation but reduce its carbon intensity to 3% to 10% of current levels, requiring a vast increase in either renewable energy (as much as “2,500 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation (30 times present capacity))” or carbon capture and sequestration.  The average fuel economy for light duty vehicles such as cars would need to be over 100 miles per gallon, and these vehicles would need to be fueled almost entirely by electricity and hydrogen.  

The challenge of translating these technical and policy pathways into a workable legal framework is considerable.  Assuming, for example, that the U.S. can achieve 54.5 miles per gallon as a fleet-wide average for new vehicles by 2025, as the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard requires, how does the U.S. achieve a fleet-wide average of more than 100 miles per gallon for all vehicles by 2050? As DDPP explains, “[t]his would require the deployment of roughly 300 million alternative fuel vehicles by 2050.”  A similar conundrum exists in reliance on renewable energy sources: what legal changes are needed to guide the development of the grid so that it can continue to be reliable while it accommodates a vast increase in intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy?

Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, and I have begun work on an edited volume that will identify and analyze a wide variety of legal pathways to decarbonization in the United States, based on these reports.  We have assembled an excellent team of legal scholars and practitioners and are aiming for publication in 2017.  We hope to inspire similar efforts in other countries.  

An essential part of the decarbonization challenge is proposing, analyzing, and comparing various legal decarbonization pathways in each individual country, including the U.S.  In the face of a daunting challenge, there exists a real possibility that lawyers can help improve human quality of life throughout the world by facilitating the creation of a legal framework that accommodates zero-carbon development.

Paris to Earth: Act Locally Within a Global Framework

Posted on December 15, 2015 by John Dernbach

Paris—In the run-up to the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention, a short humorous video, “Earth to Paris,” was widely viewed.  It was a call to delegates for take serious action on climate change at the conference.

The Paris Agreement is being hailed as an historic breakthrough by political leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and the business community. It represents the first time since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature in 1992 that all 196 parties have agreed to take  actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  The only prior agreement even remotely comparable to the Paris Agreement—the Kyoto Protocol—limited only developed country emissions.

Not only was there unanimous approval of this agreement—a remarkable feat in itself—but its overall goal is ambitious. Countries agreed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.”  They also agreed to “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”  The parties thus increased somewhat the level of ambition from limiting warming to 2 °C, which had been the consensus objective.

They also agreed to “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter.” That, too, is new.

And unlike Kyoto, this agreement puts primary responsibility for what happens in particular countries where it has always been—with the countries themselves. This is through the mechanism of nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—public commitments that nearly all countries made prior to Paris to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to some extent.  The Paris agreement affirmed those agreements and made them central to the global climate change effort.

But what also sets the Paris Agreement apart—and will ultimately determine whether humanity averts or limits the worst effects of climate change—are processes that the agreement puts in place to periodically increase national ambition, assist countries in meeting their objectives, share information, and ensure methodological consistency in accounting for emissions reductions. These processes should greatly enhance the likelihood that the Paris Agreement will actually work.

Processes in the Paris Agreement that embody this approach include the following:

  • Beginning in 2020, and every five years afterwards, each country is to “communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve.” These, of course, are in addition to those that countries already submitted. Each “successive nationally determined contribution” is to “represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.”
  • While financial assistance to developing countries has always been part of the international framework to address climate change, developed countries agreed to increase their level of financial support from previous levels by a nonspecific amount. Developed countries also agreed to communicate “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” about their financial support to developing countries, including projected future levels of public finance.
  • Beginning in 2023, and every five years afterwards, the conference of the parties is to “take stock of the implementation of this Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving” its purpose. The outcome of this “global stocktake” is to “inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner,” including enhanced “international cooperation for climate action.”
  • The agreement creates “an enhanced transparency framework for action and support.” This framework is partly to understand what NDCs actually mean and achieve. NDCs from different countries use different assumptions and baselines, and enhancing their comparability is essential. This transparency framework is also to better understand what financial contributions developed countries are actually making to developing countries.
  • Recognizing that “[a]ccelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development,” the agreement creates a Technology Mechanism. The purpose of the mechanism is to facilitate technology development and the transfer of technology to developing countries. The “global stocktake” is to consider this and other efforts to support “technology development and transfer for developing country Parties.”

These processes are different from the kind of obligations we are used to in environmental law–obligations, for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount by a certain date.  Rather, these processes may be understood in terms of reflexive law and governance. Reflexive approaches are not substantive rules: they improve the capacity of governmental institutions and other entities to learn about themselves and their actions.  Reflexive approaches also stimulate them to use this information to make appropriate changes.  They create spurs to action.

In the context of the Paris agreement, reflexive governance seems intended to perform at least four key tasks. First, it should encourage or prod governments to be more ambitious over time, without being prescriptive about what they should do.  This is true not only of emissions reductions but also, for developed countries, of their efforts to provide financial and technological resources to developing countries.  Second, it will provide information to governments and others about what other governments are actually doing, as well information about the effectiveness and impacts of particular laws and policies.  This information can then be used to modify those laws and policies.   Third, because this information will be public, it means that governments are more likely to honestly and openly share what they are doing, and be responsive to the views of nongovernmental organizations and businesses as well as the public in general.

Finally, there are few areas in law and policy in which the playing field is changing faster than in climate change.   The changes are not just new agreements, but also the rapid upscaling of renewable energy as its price drops, the wide variety of international coalitions working to accelerate greenhouse gas emission reductions in particular areas or sectors, changes in the emissions profiles of China and India over the past decade, improvements in our understanding of the science, and the greater availability of private finance.  The Kyoto Protocol, hailed as an advance when approved in 1997, looks like a relic less than 20 years later.

These and other processes in the Paris Agreement are more likely to survive, accommodate, and address this shifting landscape in the years ahead.  One could wish for a stronger agreement, but these processes are likely to make the global partnership to address climate change stronger and more effective over time. And they are particularly likely to do so because every country agreed to the ambitious goals toward which they are aimed.

 

Orginially posted on www.johndernbach.com

DUTCH COURT: NETHERLANDS MUST DO MORE TO REDUCE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

Posted on July 21, 2015 by John Dernbach

            On June 25, 2015, The Hague District Court in the Netherlands issued an order and opinion requiring the Netherlands to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.  This level is more ambitious than the 17 percent reduction goal to which the Dutch government has currently committed.  The case, Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands suggests what courts may be willing to do when government policy lags behind what climate science indicates is needed. 

            Urgenda sued the government in tort under the Dutch Civil Code on behalf of itself and 886 individuals, claiming among other things that “the State is in breach of its duty of care for taking insufficient measures to prevent dangerous climate change.”  For U.S. lawyers, accustomed to limited governmental tort liability under federal and state law, the breadth of this claim may be startling.  But it was also novel, though less so, to the court, which explained that this legal issue “has never before been answered in Dutch proceedings.” 

            Although the state has considerable discretion in policy making for climate change, the court said, that discretion is constrained by both the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).  Objectives and principles of the Climate Change Convention and the TFEU that constrain Dutch discretion, the court said, include “protection of the climate system, for the benefit of current and future generations, based on fairness;”  the precautionary principle, and consideration of “available scientific and technical information.” 

            Urgenda’s case was based on numerous scientific reports, including the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said that Annex I countries (including both the Netherlands and the United States), need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, to limit the global temperature increase to 2.0 degrees Celsius.    Parties to the Convention on Climate Change have agreed that a temperature increase above that level (equivalent to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would be dangerous. 

            After analyzing multiple factors relevant to the appropriate duty of care, the court concluded that the state “has acted negligently and therefore unlawfully towards Urgenda by starting from a reduction target for 2020 of less than 25% percent compared to the year 1990.”   It ordered a 25 percent reduction, saying there are “insufficient grounds for the lower limit” of a 40% reduction from 1990 levels specified in the 2007 IPCC report.  

            Although the case was decided under Dutch legal rules that are quite different from our own, and may be appealed, it has significance to U.S. lawyers.  First, it shows great respect for climate change science, describing IPCC and other scientific reports in considerable detail.  The case therefore underscores the important role that courts can play in affirming the validity of climate change science.

            Second, the court’s willingness to interpret domestic law in ways consistent with international commitments, including those in the Convention on Climate Change as well as the commitment to keep warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius, raises an interesting and important question about whether U.S. domestic laws related to climate change also should be interpreted in ways consistent with international commitments.  U.S. courts have often held that statutes should be construed in a manner consistent with treaties and other international obligations.    

            Finally, the decision indicates the value of judicial intervention as a way of forcing governments and businesses to do more than they are doing.  Additional legal support for such cases was provided, in March 2015, by the issuance of the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations.  These principles were developed by a group of legal experts from around the world.  The central idea is that “[s]tates and enterprises must take measures, based on” the precautionary principle, “to ensure that the global average surface temperature increase never exceeds pre-industrial temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius.”  Many sources of local, national, and international law support these principles, the experts said, including “international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.” 

            According to a report issued on July 16, 2015 by the American Meteorological Society, 2014 was the warmest year on record.  As the effects of climate change intensify, there may be more such litigation, and decisions like this could become more common.       

Task Force Recommends Stronger ABA Leadership on Sustainability

Posted on September 2, 2014 by John Dernbach

Will the ABA make leadership on issues of sustainability a permanent part of the organization's infrastructure and policy?  That is the key recommendation of the American Bar Association’s Task force on Sustainable Development.  The July 31, 2014 Task Force report recommends that the ABA strengthen its ability to provide leadership on sustainability by creating a sustainability entity within ABA that is directly responsible to the ABA president.  “First and foremost,” the report said, "[the ABA] should establish a permanent infrastructure for integrating sustainability within the ABA over the long term.” 

As recommended by the Task Force, the sustainability entity  would engage "the entire organization and membership, and convey the ABA’s ethic for economic, social and environmental responsibility" under a “leadership team that reports directly to the ABA President.” 

The sustainability leadership entity would be guided by a short “written statement of ABA’s vision and values on sustainability relevant to the legal profession.”   It would be responsible for issuing an “annual report on ABA’s progress toward achieving sustainability” and on “law-related developments” on sustainability.  In addition, it would run an “ABA-wide program of annual awards for exemplary sustainability efforts by lawyers, law organizations, and others.”   Finally, it would be responsible for “[m]aintaining and enhancing the Resource Center” by, among other things, “making it prominently accessible from the ABA homepage.” 

The Task Force recommendation follows from then-ABA President James R. Silkenat’s 2013 charge to the Task Force to “focus on ways that the ABA can provide leadership on a national and international basis on sustainable development issues.”  (See my earlier blog, “ABA Task Force to Help Mainstream Sustainability in Law Practice.”)

The report also described the Task Force’s achievements in its first year.  Chief among these is the creation of an online Resource Center "that is dedicated to provide, on an ongoing basis, sustainable development tools, links, and other information for lawyers and law organizations.” 

The Task Force, which has twenty members (including me) representing the private sector, government, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, and academia, is chaired by Lee A. DeHihns, a member of the Environmental & Land Development Group at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia and a former chair of the ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources.  Although the Task Force was originally established for one year, the ABA Board of Governors has approved the Task Force for a second year.  In its second year, the Task force plans to address three additional areas where greater effort is needed to foster sustainable development: legal education, the role of lawyers, and government. 

On legal education, the task force will consider, among others, a recommendation to “identify specific areas of knowledge and practice skills that current lawyers and law organizations should possess in order to assure the basic understanding of sustainability needed for the competent practice of law in the 21st century.”   It will also consider a recommendation for the development or endorsement of “sustainability education and certification programs (via law schools or [continuing legal education] providers) that would enable lawyers who have taken a specific number of hours of sustainability-related courses to obtain a certificate.” 

On law practice, the task force will consider, among others, a recommendation that the ABA encourage all lawyers to consider ways of incorporating sustainable development into their law practice.   On government, the Task Force will consider specific ways of supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in fostering sustainability, as provided by EPA’s new strategic plan. 

The report notes that lawyers tend to lag behind their clients: “Clients, including business and industry clients, as well as nongovernmental and governmental clients, have become increasingly engaged in sustainability, with growing sophistication and more intensive commitment….[Yet] the legal community has been noticeably absent from meaningful participation in many sustainability ‘communities of practice.’  The Task Force is working to change that dynamic.” 

Of course, the recommendations  in this report are just that: recommendations.  The ABA will decide how to respond to them by following its normal policymaking processes.  However, the establishment of the Resource Center makes it easier for lawyers to obtain relevant information about sustainability.  Keeping the Task Force active for a second year provides an opportunity for continued dialogue. 

ABA Task Force to Help Mainstream Sustainability in Law Practice

Posted on December 4, 2013 by John Dernbach

After more than a decade of laying a foundation for sustainability activities, the American  Bar Association is poised to take its act to a higher level with a presidential level Task Force on Sustainable Development.  The Task Force is intended, in no small part, to help mainstream sustainable development into the practice of law. 

Within the practice of law, there is already a small group of lawyers whose work focuses intensively on sustainable development—including renewable energy and energy efficiency, biodiversity conservation, green building, climate change, and smart growth.  They are doing so in response to growing demand from clients, government, and the private sector, as well as rising public expectations about environmental and social performance.  Yet sustainable development remains something of a mystery to many environmental lawyers.  And some environmental lawyers think they understand sustainability when they do not.

The critical task of sustainable development is to integrate environmental and social considerations and goals into otherwise conventional development decisions.  Environmental goals include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a smaller overall environmental footprint, climate change resilience, reduced toxicity or pollution, and conservation of species and ecosystems.  Social goals include workforce diversity, employee safety and development, and contribution to charitable or community activities. 

Over the past decade, the American Bar Association has developed two tools to enable lawyers to help lawyers move their offices in a sustainable direction and to recognize law organizations that use them.  They are:

•    The ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge, a program to encourage law offices to conserve energy and resources, as well as reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
•    The ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Sustainability Framework for Law Organizations, in which a law organization commits to take steps over time toward sustainability.  

In August, the ABA House of Delegates, which has a significant policy-making role, adopted a resolution that builds on these and other steps toward sustainability.  The resolution — the third major resolution on sustainability it has adopted since 1991--“urges all governments, lawyers, and ABA entities to act in ways that accelerate progress toward sustainability.”  The resolution also “encourages law schools, legal education providers, and others concerned with professional development to foster sustainability in their facilities and operations and to help promote a better understanding of the principles of sustainable development in relevant fields of law.”

In conjunction with this resolution, ABA President James R. Silkenat appointed a Task Force on Sustainable Development to “focus on ways that the ABA can provide leadership on a national and international basis on sustainable development issues.”  The Task Force is chaired by Lee A. DeHihns, a member of the Environmental & Land Development Group at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia and a former chair of SEER. The Task Force has 20 members (including me), representing government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and academia.   

The Task Force is planning to create a user-friendly website that contains a variety of sustainability resources for lawyers.  It is also looking at a range of different kinds of educational materials and tools for lawyers and law students on sustainability issues. 

It is increasingly important for lawyers to be able to communicate with clients about sustainability in general, the growing number of sustainability issues that are affecting law practice (including but certainly not limited to climate change), and the ways in which lawyers and others are creating tools and approaches for sustainability.  Law firm innovations for sustainability include the combined use of low income housing tax credits and renewable energy tax credits to finance low income housing that uses solar energy, and legal and financing packages for municipalities that invest in green infrastructure.   

The Task Force is also examining a wide variety of other ways that lawyers and the ABA can “accelerate progress toward sustainability.”  Because the Task Force has one year to complete its work, it is also looking at projects and activities it can complete in that year and longer term projects and activities that can be started in that year but that would need a longer time to finish.  If you have suggestions, contact Lee DeHihns or me.  And stay tuned. 

Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

Posted on March 27, 2013 by John Dernbach

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.     

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.  Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way. 

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992.  On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property.    It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability. 

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331). 

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements.  It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example.  Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters.  But sustainable development as an idea—achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction. 

In response, opponents are attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21.  They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.  

Far-fetched, you say?  Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country. 

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims. 

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.