Research (PhD thesis)

Operationalizing the Notion of Ecosystem Approach in International Law in the Age of Planetary Boundaries

In an era of planetary boundaries, law is increasingly called upon to translate the insights coming from Earth System research into arrangements and behavior that can contribute to sustainability transitions. This realization capitalizes on previous developments in international environmental law, but pushes its boundaries forward significantly. In particular, law is now expected to overcome an outdated view of social-ecological systems and to embrace the complexity and uncertainty which characterize their functioning.

One concept that might prove instrumental in these efforts towards making law fit for the purpose of more effectively regulating social-ecological processes is the ecosystem approach, which has emerged as one the most discussed new ideas in international regimes concerned with the protection of global public goods.

By aiming to shift the focus of environmental regimes (traditionally concerned with species, groups of species, habitats or sources of pollution) to the highest levels of biological interaction (namely, ecosystems, biomes or the entire biosphere) and their dynamics, the ecosystem approach raises fundamental legal questions relating to the relationship that exists between legal structures, norms and processes and the new challenges of Earth System governance.

Accordingly, this PhD research seeks to comprehensively explore its potential contribution to the evolution of law in the face of growing awareness about the pace and implications of current global environmental change. Its central thesis contends that whilst the ecosystem approach can represent a powerful prism through which to re-imagine the relationship between law and the biosphere, its effective operationalization depends on a range of conditions, including: (a) achieving conceptual clarity about its meaning and function: (b) identifying the tensions and synergies that exist between the ecosystem approach as enshrined in environmental regimes and the rules governing other sectors of law; and (c) addressing the underlying legal structures and principles which indirectly hinder the protection of ecological processes.

PhD thesis in progress
Dario Piselli
PhD Student
Dario Piselli