Law, Innovation and Environmental Sustainability – From Vision to Reality

CC Elena Staffoni

Photo: Sentiero dei fiori, Adamello (Passo del Tonale), Italia /CC-license: Elena Staffoni

Authors: Rosa Ballardini, Juha Vesala, Anette Alen-Savikko and Corinna Casi / University of Lapland

We are on the verge of an environmental crisis. Ecological degradation caused by human activity, ranging from loss of species to climate change, is rapidly spreading globally at a systemic level. Scenarios like those depicted by the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ ‒ a new epoch marred by disruptive human action on nature and its processes ‒ convincingly point to the need for change.

However, with right moves, we can still reverse this development.

But we need prompt action at multiple levels of society. Critically, tackling the environmental crisis calls for a radical change towards a system that prioritizes ecological values and sustainability. In this transition, the legal framework could create pathways for ethically sound, yet effective, techno-socio-economic development.

How can legal and policy solutions help produce sustainable innovations that bring minimal adverse side-effects or disruptions?

Technological development and innovation impact on societies’ ability to respond to the environmental crisis, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. It is no coincidence that the Green Deal announced by the European Commission to transform the EU economy and society to a more environmentally sustainable model places deployment and development of sustainable technologies in a central role. It is true that certain technologies would help foster sustainability. For instance, technologies carry potential for fostering resource efficiency. Examples include those related to bio-based material developments or in digital manufacturing, such as 3D printing. But they are also open to challenge via ethical arguments (e.g. from human-environmental or human-technical perspectives).

Unquestionably, a ‘just’ transition towards a sustainable future involves a complex multi-level framework. But, in turn, this means we need to ensure that law and policy aim at fostering rather than hindering innovations. And that requires constant scrutiny of the ethical aspect. At a time of great legal uncertainty over how many of these technologies will be regulated worldwide [1] ;

it is essential to think ahead to future scenarios with more sustainable innovations

where the law may appear to stand in the way of critical environmental issues.

Focus needed on private law regimes regulating innovations

In this discourse, the role of private law regimes ‒ e.g., intellectual property rights, competition law, and contract law ‒ is crucial. This is due to the importance of these legal fields in regulating innovations and business. Surprisingly, though, a vital question has so far been largely disregarded: How to promote sustainability though private law tools? This exercise must look not only at incentives and protection, but also ways to promote circularity as well as innovation structures and licensing schemes enabling collaboration and co-production of knowledge. What’s more, raising awareness though private governance tools (e.g., certifications and standards) is a key driver of consumer behavior towards the right path.

In ValueBioMat we contextualize these issues within the specific framework of the bio-based plastic value chain. In particular, we advocate for innovation through research, and experiments with novel technologies such as 3D printing applied to production of bio-based plastic. We also look at ecolabels and possible flaws in the system of standardization via private regulation. Our aim? To develop a more rigorous system fostering, e.g. recycling, the circular economy and sustainable innovation more broadly.

[1] For regulation of 3D printing see, Mendis D, Nordemann J, Ballardini R M, Brorsen H, Calatrava-Moreno M, Robson R and Dickens P, The Intellectual Property Implications of the Development of Industrial 3D Printing, Publications of the European Commission (April 2020), available at: