Is It Time for a Global Sustainability Treaty?

By Inder Comar

Law has the power to promote common values that help change societies for the better. At the international level, treaties are the legal mechanism by which a shared vision is enacted by and between different countries.

It is tempting to cynically dismiss international agreements, but they can be surprisingly effective. Treaties like the United Nations Charter, the International Bill of Rights, the Convention Against Torture and even the Kyoto Protocol are all documents that shaped the current international order.

As global population tips towards seven billion people and with growing concern over access to clean water, energy resources and the effects of climate change, the moment is increasingly ripe for sustainability to become an issue of international importance. A binding “Sustainability Treaty” could help distill a shared set of values that advocates all over the world could use to frame conversations related to sustainability.

Here are some issues that a Sustainability Treaty could tackle:

Resource preservation and trade:  International trade is already globally managed through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization (in addition to regional trade blocks like the European Union and NAFTA). A Sustainability Treaty can take these trade agreements to the next level by mandating cooperation related to the use and trade of necessary resources likely to cause conflict in the coming century. Concerns about peak water and peak oil are better addressed through trade agreements that incentivize water- or oil-rich countries to trade these goods at reasonable prices in exchange for (say) favorable trading conditions for other goods, direct investment, or technology transfers.

Sustainable development:  It’s wrongheaded for Americans to see rising BRIC nations only as competitors or threats to the current global order — on the contrary, the spread of affluence and basic necessities to places like India and China creates an unprecedented opportunity for mutual growth and technological advancement.  A Sustainability Treaty can change the conversation about sustainability by correctly pushing for needed economic and technological reforms that will lay the foundation for the affluence of the 21st century.  For example, countries could agree to global gas mileage standards on new cars, joint development on new forms of energy technologies or re-thinking agricultural production.

Pollution and waste:  The 1987 Montreal Protocol has been hailed as an example of international cooperation related to human-caused ecological problems (specifically the depletion of the ozone layer). A Sustainability Treaty can build on that success by tackling problems associated with other sources of toxic pollution and waste, particularly plastics and e-waste.  More ambitiously, a Sustainability Treaty could even address the issue of nuclear waste and put together a comprehensive framework for a nuclear clean-up and even phase-out of outdated and waste-producing nuclear technology.

Climate change:  The Kyoto Protocol was the international community’s first effort to tackle climate change, and while it placed climate issues on the radar of governments and international organizations, as a practical matter carbon emissions continue to rise. Perhaps the flaw in current climate strategy is tackling the issue alone when in reality climate change is tied to a larger conversation about the creation of sustainable civilizations.  Hold-outs to Kyoto (specifically the United States) might find it more politically feasible to talk about climate change within the context of trade or development opportunities as well.

What are some other issues that might be addressed in a Sustainability Treaty?


Inder Comar is a social impact litigator and business counselor with significant experience in internet, intellectual property and international policy issues.  He lives and practices law in San Francisco.  His websites are and

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One response

  1. “What are some other issues that might be addressed in a Sustainability Treaty?”

    Longevity. Not of people but of manufactured goods and infrastructure. Things designed to fall apart rapidly need to be discriminated against. “Fashion” trends need to be much reduced. Robustness, re-use, durability, repairability and, ultimately recyclability need to be “hard wired” in at the design stage.

    Consider, a stable global population and dwellings/buildings etc designed to last 200 years; after a generation or so of inheritance, everyone on Earth could own their own place and a lot of the frantic work and expenditure of materials and energy to pay for the largest item of expenditure in most people’s lives would be unnecessary.

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