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Laws for the Planet: Using Law to Deliver Sustainability and Green Growth

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As the world gathers in Rio, legal and institutional reforms remain key to delivering sustainable development. Yet effective national laws to further this goal are few and far between; court rulings that take account of sustainable development principles are rare exceptions. Green economies -- one of the summit's central themes -- stand little chance of taking root unless there is a strong will to enact them in law.

The green economy -- as opposed to the carbon-intensive, socially non-inclusive variety -- holds nature to be a capital. Sustainability is at its heart. In the green economy, local empowerment and respect for the environment are seen as spurs, not hindrances, to prosperity. Governments, citizens and investors are locked in a virtuous circle of climate-conscious stakeholding, rather than in a zero-sum game of scorched-earth growth.

But green economies do not just grow on trees. They need pro-active decision-making. Governments must emulate practices shown to work elsewhere, and incorporate the best that national and international lawmaking has to offer into their national legislations. Examples abound for those willing to take notice.

Take South Africa. There (as in Uruguay), access to water is a constitutional right. This right is not absolute; it does not obligate the government to provide all citizens overnight with safe drinking water. But giving access to water a legal expression does commit the authorities to do everything in their power, within reason, to extend this right as a matter of urgency. Millions are thought to have benefited.

South Africa's legal provisions on water work because they are flexible; they may not be identically reproduced around the world. Yet the country does offer a best-practice model: it demonstrates how strong political will may deliver bold laws and secure benefits for individuals, societies and economies alike.

Elsewhere in the developing world, Tanzania's National Information and Communication Technology policy enables reliable data acquisition of informal downtown settlements, providing a crucial urban planning tool. India's accreditation system for organic farming has led the United States and the European Union to recognize its standards as equal to their own: Their markets are now open to Indian organic exporters.

In Mexico, a General Law on Sustainable Fishing and Agriculture has made the granting of fishing licenses and the management of fisheries an inclusive, multiparty process. In Vietnam, carbon offset schemes reward the preservation of mangroves, rather than their destruction.

Once the objective of sustainable development has been endorsed, law helps by enshrining it across sectors, in everything from investment rules to planning regulations to building codes to taxation. Law does not equal red tape; it need not be an obstacle to investment. Quite the opposite: in the green economy, law is an economic enabler and multiplier of success. From agriculture to energy to most economic sectors, intelligent lawmaking can deliver prosperity and environmental protection.

It is law that helps puts non-monetized natural resources into the economic circuit, unlocking their potential for wealth creation. Green laws turn marginalized communities into rights-holders and interlocutors, bolstering not just living standards, but dignity, too, and social cohesion. Securing our common future is a matter of legal action, at both national and international level.

As they begin their talks in Rio on Wednesday, governments must understand they are not just attending a global society ball. So let them compare notes, go home, and give their citizens the laws that will allow them to prosper -- them, and the planet too.

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