Research Handbook on Fundamental Concepts of Environmental Law
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Research Handbook on Fundamental Concepts of Environmental Law

Edited by Douglas Fisher

The quality and the strength of an environmental legal system is a reflection of the conceptual foundations upon which it is constructed. The Research Handbook on Fundamental Concepts of Environmental Law illuminates key aspects of environmental governance through the lens of their underlying dimensions: for example, the form, structure and language of international, regional and national instruments; the function of norms, objectives and standards; and the relevance of economic analysis and of integrated policy formulation.
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Chapter 11: The growing significance of the principle of sustainable development as a legal norm

Jonathan Verschuuren


There has been considerable debate about the legal nature of the principle of sustainable development as well as its meaning. Is it really a legal principle? These debates are related because the rather vague and ambiguous terminology makes a straightforward legal implementation or application of the principle of sustainable development in legal practice difficult. Legal scholars have labelled ‘sustainable development’ a concept, a goal, a policy objective, a guideline, an ideal, a meta-principle, a weak norm of international law, a concept or principle of customary law, or a legal principle. Since its rise in international environmental law in 1992, sustainable development has been increasingly referred to by drafters of environmental and other treaties as well as by international and domestic courts. Increased reference to sustainable development – sometimes as a principle but more often as an objective or a concept – has led to its stronger normative power and its stronger legal status. The integration of environmental concerns into decision-making processes has been broadly accepted and it can authoritatively be seen as a firm legal duty. Although many commentators probably think that this process has not gone fast enough, it is the view of the author of this chapter that an extrapolation of the use of the principle of sustainable development will see a further increase of its impact upon judicial reasoning and upon how legal texts will be drafted in the near future.

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