Ensuring effective implementation of various environmental agreements is key to shaping a sustainable future

25 February 2020
By Roux Raath, WCO Environment Programme

The global Customs theme for 2020 reads “Customs Fostering Sustainability for People, Prosperity and the Planet,” and, although the three focus areas are inter-linked, each warrants separate consideration due to their wide-ranging scope.

It is thought-provoking to note that global GDP is estimated at 66.9 trillion US dollars, but the monetary value of nature, in other words the economic contribution of the natural world, at 145.1 trillion US dollars.[1]

The earth and its resources are finite, and it is becoming exponentially more challenging “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,”[2] the principle that lies at the heart of sustainability.

Sustainable Development Goals

World leaders committed, for the first time, to the goal of sustainable development at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 2000, 189 States signed a declaration to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals, achievement of which expired in 2015. As a result, new action was needed to lay a foundation for a more secure future and in order to meet environmental and development challenges until 2030.[3] This led to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreeing to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in 2020, the world has 10 years left to achieve them.

The 17 SDGs

The 17 SDGs focus on discrete challenges, but are all linked. They are: No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Good Health and Well-being; Quality Education; Gender Equality; Clean Water and Sanitation; Affordable and Clean Energy; Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; Reduced Inequality; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Responsible Consumption and Production; Climate Action; Life Below Water; Life on Land; Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions; and Partnerships (for the goals).

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability lies at the heart of most of the SDGs, and cannot be detached from the SDGs and future prosperity. The UN acknowledges environmental sustainability as key to achieving its 2030 SDGs, and supports the integration of sustainable development principles and practices into a country’s policies and programmes.[4]

Unfortunately, threats to the environment have become prominent and are largely acknowledged as instrumental in jeopardizing the future of humanity. The view of what constitutes an environmental threat may vary, but most have anthropogenic or human intervention singled out as the key catalyst for the current state the world is in. Phrases such as ‘carbon footprint,’ ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming,’ ‘deforestation,’ ‘biodiversity loss,’ ‘melting polar ice-caps’ and ‘rising sea levels,’ seem to have become imbedded in modern day vernacular.[5]

According to Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, “Environmental risks continue to dominate the results of our annual Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS). This year, they accounted for three of the top five risks by likelihood and four by impact.”[6]

Environmental risks are topical, recent, acute and on the increase,[7] and if the key drivers of change are considered, policy interventions and operational solutions should be developed and constantly refined, and compliance must be guaranteed.

There are various noticeable drivers that have changed the face of the earth, and include the population explosion; economic expansion; the ‘City Planet’ concept (i.e. urbanization); demand for fuel/energy; escalating appetite (for resources and products); demand on water sources; and consumerism.[8]

Some interesting facts
  • Since 1950, the global population almost tripled to 7.4 billion in 2016.
  • There has been a ten-fold expansion in the global economy since 1950.
  • More than half of the world’s population now live in towns and cities.
  • Energy use has increased by five times since 1950.
  • Fresh-water use has increased fivefold.
  • A ten-fold rise in the consumption of natural resources has been witnessed.
  • A record greenhouse gas concentration is present in the atmosphere.
  • A more than four-fold increase in fish capture is evident.
  • The mass extinction of animals and plants is gathering momentum.[9]

Working towards environmental sustainability

Various environmental and social treaties and goals have been adopted internationally, but more progress has been made in relation to social goals than environmental ones.[10] The future will be shaped by many factors, such as prevailing attitudes, but also the effective implementation of various environmental treaties, protocol’s, other agreements, and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).[11] Essentially, these include important direction-giving goals and agreements such as the UN SDGs and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, as well as various MEAs that include:

  • the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal;
  • the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity;
  • the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (CWC);
  • the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES);
  • the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer;
  • the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade;
  • the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Customs’ role

Effective enforcement of MEAs requires that law enforcement agencies know the provisions of the agreements and related regulations, and have the legal and technical capacity to enforce them. In this regard, Customs administrations are uniquely mandated and positioned at the borders of a country, or at critical ‘chokepoints’ in the supply chain, and their role in enforcing environmental regulations is crucial.

To understand the provisions of international agreements, the procedures they establish and the documentation they require, Customs has at its disposal a large variety of training material developed by the WCO and its international partners, including the various Secretariats of the MEAs mentioned above. Non-governmental organizations, such as the Environmental Investigation Agency, also undertake investigations and publish intelligence and analysis that directly support governmental enforcement activities.

Customs administrations should also make use of risk management methods and techniques, as well as take advantage of national, regional and global information and intelligence exchange networks that are in place and through which information, risk data, and intelligence are disseminated. It is also critical that they contribute to these networks by reporting seizure data and sending alerts. A rudimentary analysis of the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) database shows that a gap exists between the seizures performed and the seizures reported by WCO Members.

Lastly, they should also actively participate in enforcement operations organized by the WCO and its partners. These operations provide Customs with a unique opportunity to assess their enforcement capacities and the strength of their cooperation mechanisms, which must be in place between environmental agencies, other law enforcement agencies and any other additional partners.

Some of the overarching lessons learned during such operations include the need, ahead of the operation, to assess risks, to strengthen Customs-Police coordination, and to ensure that proper and quality seizure data is reported to the WCO.

2019 enforcement operations with an environmental focus

Operation PRAESIDIO, a wildlife and flora focused operation, conducted as part of the WCO’s INAMA Project, impacted 41 countries across the globe, resulting in 267 seizures and 125 arrests.

Operation THUNDERBALL, a WCO-INTERPOL joint operation in which 109 countries participated, focused on the illegal trade in wildlife, inclusive of flora. The operation resulted in 1,828 seizures, and saw the arrest of nearly 600 suspects.

Operation DEMETER V, with the close support of China Customs and the WCO Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for the Asia/Pacific region (RILO AP), focused on the control of transboundary shipments of waste, with a specific focus on plastic waste, as well as ozone depleting substances (ODS). The efforts resulted in 201 seizures of waste, totalling 4,584,733 kg, and 27 ODS-related seizures, amounting to 8,034 kg.

Operation SESHA III, with the support of Indian Customs, focused on the illegal timber trade, more specifically on the red sanders species.


It is imperative for Customs administrations to acknowledge and respond to environmental risks and crimes, and to ensure that such crimes receive the strategic and policy recognition and operational attention they deserve. With 2020 having ‘sustainability’ at its core, Customs is encouraged to look into how it can improve the enforcement of environmental regulations while supporting the activities of the WCO Secretariat such as participating in Operation DEMETER (waste and ozone depleting substances) or the THUNDER operation series organized with INTERPOL (illegal wildlife trade).

[1] Juniper, T., 2016, What’s Really Happening to our world, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London

[2] Investopia, n.d., Sustainability, accessed 14 October 2019,

[3] Juniper (2016: 192). “The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve each Goal and target by 2030”.

[4] World leaders adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to achieve certain objectives, or “several extraordinary things”, by 2030 such as end poverty, promote prosperity and well-being for all, and protect the planet. The Sustainable Development Goals are a set of course to achieve these objectives. United Nations Foundation (2013).

[5] Kinhal, V 2018, ‘Seven Biggest Environmental Threats’, Green Living, viewed 18 September 2018, Also see Zimmer, L 2018, ‘7 biggest threats to the environment – why we still need Earth Day’, inhabitat, viewed 28 September 2018,

[6] World Economic Forum 2019, The Global Risks Report 2019 – 14th Edition, viewed 9 December 2019,

[7] World Economic Forum 2018, The Global Risks Report 2018 – 13th Edition, viewed 18 September 2018,

[8] Juniper (2016: 5).

[9] Juniper (2016: 10-13).

[10] United Nations Environment Programme (2018: 188).

[11] MEAs are treaties between multiple States and, in some cases, regional economic integration organizations such as the European Union to pursue specific objectives aimed at protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. The intention of the international community to develop a new MEA is often brought about by worldwide concerns about the actual or potential serious impacts of human activities on the Earth’s fragile environment and the need to address these though concerted efforts at the global level in order to ensure a safe future for coming generations. United Nations Environment Programme (2018: 1).