In the wake of global energy crises, including those related to supply, price and pollution associated with traditional sources of energy, the international community has been seriously considering the use and development of renewable energy as an alternative solution. The increasing importance attached to the issue is derived from the fact that sustainable development is almost impossible without the use of sustainable energy sources. Moreover, the protection of the environment is considered as “common concern of humanity”.
Current trends in energy resources suggests that the use of fossil fuels, has severely undermined the existence of traditional energy resources. On the other hand, the use of fossil fuels results in irreparable damages to the environment. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) points out that fossil fuels have accounted for 85 percent of the world’s fuel resources between 2004 to 2008. Further, 56% of greenhouse gas emissions have been produced as a result of burning the fossil fuels.
Having regard to the soaring trend of energy use in the world, most of which supplied by fossil fuels, it is necessary to reconsider the current sources of energy supply and energy consumption. Notwithstanding the declining trend of non-renewable resources of energy and the severe pollution it produces, renewable energy seems to be a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels, since its use both supplies the required energy for economic development, in line with energy security policies, and has much less (or zero) pollution and toxic emissions and would guarantee sustainable development. An important question that arises is whether the international community has predicted specified obligations for states in this field. Moreover, the role of international organizations and forums in setting the agenda and serving as catalysts for the development of renewable energies must be examined.
The international community, aware of this trend, has made efforts to promote the use of sustainable energy. Although these efforts are insufficient, they constitute initial steps towards achieving an important goal. The UN secretary general’s initiative called “SE4ALL” and “a decade of sustainable energy for all (2014 – 2024)” that seeks to increase the level of sustainable energy to 30% by 2030 are amongst such efforts and represent a commitment to promote the use of renewable energy sources. Moreover, the efforts to establish international organizations, namely the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), indicates the significance of the issue at the international level.
In order to achieve the United Nations goal to reduce carbon emissions and promote the use of renewable energy sources, international legal rules and standards must be in place. To this end, governments, intergovernmental and non- governmental organizations play a very significant role in the formulation and implementation of international regulations, that ultimately leads to sustainable production and consumption of energy.
In the international legal system, binding provisions that directly address the issue of the use and development of renewable energy do not exist yet. However, some non-binding legal documents (e.g. Agenda 21), known as “soft law”, have addressed the issue. Treaties such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (and the Kyoto Protocol), and the Energy Charter Treaty lack definite and binding obligations on the use of renewable energy; however, the role of international environmental law and international energy law in this sphere is a crucial one, since the emerging norms and standards that might regulate the renewable energy use originate from those fields. In the absence of binding treaty obligations in the field of renewable energy, customary rules and general principles of international law will play the central role. Thus, the significance of emerging standards of international law for the development of renewable and clean energy must be taken into account. These commitments are not considered as law, but they will eventually change into binding obligations in long term process.
An important issue that should be kept in mind is the inviolable principle of permanent sovereignty of states over their natural resources. This principle has been reiterated in various international instruments, including in a number of the UNGA resolutions. However, this principle is not absolute. It can be limited by the “No Harm” principle, according to which no state may use its territory in a way that harms the territory of other states. This is the point where the issue of renewable technology might be raised. Clearly, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels can result in damages to the territory of other states, but the low (or zero) amount of pollution caused by renewable energies ensures no harm to other state’s territories.
Finally, given the undeniable significance of renewable energy in sustainable development process, reducing the threat of climate change and the world energy security, developing a comprehensive international legal regime in this area would be inevitable. A comprehensive international legal regime on renewables will both require states to promote renewable energy in their energy mix and serve as a basis for the legal development of the issue.
PhD Candidate of International Law – Shahid Beheshti University (Tehran – Iran)
Mehrdad’s PhD thesis investigates the obligations of states to use renewable energy from the international environmental perspective. His research focuses on, inter alia, international environmental law, international marine environmental law, international dispute settlement, international law on oil and gas and international energy law.