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International Environmental Law

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International Environmental Law

This article is about an area of law. For the journal, see Environmental Law (law review).

Environmental law is a collective term describing international treaties (conventions), statutes, regulations, and common law or national legislation (where applicable) that operates to regulate the interaction of humanity and the natural environment, toward the purpose of reducing the impacts of human activity.

The topic may be divided into two major subjects: pollution control and remediation, and resource conservation, individual exhaustion. The limitations and expenses that such laws may impose on commerce, and the often unquantifiable (non-monetized) benefit of environmental protection, have generated and continue to generate significant controversy.

Given the broad scope of environmental law, no fully definitive list of environmental laws is possible. The following discussion and resources give an indication of the breadth of law that falls within the "environmental" metric.


Pure water has been an issue in many antique societies and therefore one can admittedly argue that the first legal rules on environmental issues are pretty old - they are clearly originating from Roman law rules and were also applied in the Middle Ages in Europe. While it is possible to identify early legal structures that would today fall into the "environmental" law metric - for example the common law recognition of private and public rights to protect interests in land, such as nuisance, or post-industrial revolution human health protections - the concept of "environmental law" as a separate and distinct body of law is a 20th Century development.[1] The recognition that the natural environment was fragile and in need of special legal protections, the translation of that recognition into legal structures, and the development of those structures into a larger body of "environmental law" did not occur until about the 1960s. At that time, numerous influences - including a growing awareness of the unity and fragility of the biosphere following mankind's first steps into outer space (see, for example, the Blue Marble), increased public concern over the impact of industrial activity on natural resources and human health (see, for example, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire), the increasing strength of the regulatory state, and more broadly the advent and success of environmentalism as a political movement - coalesced to produce a huge new body of law in a relatively short period of time. While the modern history of environmental law is one of continuing controversy, by the end of the 20th Century, environmental law had been established as a component of the legal landscape in all developed nations of the world, many developing ones, and the larger project of international law..


Environmental law is often the source of controversy. Notably, the early history of national environmental regulation in the United States (at the time the world leader in environmental regulation) was marked by relative political unity. The National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) all were enacted with broad bipartisan support, and ultimately signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon. Even then, however, critics raised concerns regarding the need for such laws and the costs involved in implementing them. Richard Nixon himself initially vetoed the Clean Water Act, citing its projected costs, though he was ultimately overridden by Congress.[2] Debates over the necessity, fairness, cost, and need for environmental regulation continue to this day.


The necessity of directly regulating a particular activity due to the activity's environmental consequences is often a subject of debate. These debates may be scientific. For example, scientific uncertainty fuels the ongoing debate over greenhouse gas regulation and is a major factor in the debate over whether to ban pesticides.[3]


It is very common for regulated industry to argue against environmental regulation on the basis of cost. Indeed, in the U.S. estimates of the environmental regulation's total costs reach 2% of GDP,[4] and any new regulation will arguably contribute in some way to that burden. Difficulties arise, however, in performing cost-benefit analysis. The value of a healthy ecosystem is not easily quantified, nor the value of clean air, species diversity, etc. Furthermore environmental issues may gain an ethical or moral dimension that would discount cost.


Environmental interests will often criticize environmental regulation as inadequately protective of the environment. Furthermore, strong environmental laws do not guarantee strong enforcement. Nonetheless; the cost benefit analysis for society at large, between having laws that protect citizens from toxic or dangerous living and work conditions (such as those that existed in the early industrial 1900's) clearly comes down on the side of regulation.

Environmental law by country

This section provides overviews of national environmental law by continent, region, and country.


According to the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE), the major environmental issues in Africa are “drought and flooding, air pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, freshwater availability, degradation of soil and vegetation, and widespread poverty.” [5] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is focused on the “growing urban and industrial pollution, water quality, electronic waste and indoor air from cookstoves.” [6] They hope to provide enough aid on concerns regarding pollution before their impacts are contaminate the African environment as well as the global environment. By doing so, they intend to “protect human health, particularly vulnerable populations such as children and the poor.” [6] In order to accomplish these goals in Africa, EPA programs are focus on strengthening the ability to enforce environmental laws as well as public compliance to them. Other programs work on developing stronger environmental laws, regulations, and standards.[6]


The Environmental Protection Law outlines the responsibilities of the Egyptian government to “preparation of draft legislation and decrees pertinent to environmental management, collection of data both nationally and internationally on the state of the environment, preparation of periodical reports and studies on the state of the environment, formulation of the national plan and its projects, preparation of environmental profiles for new and urban areas, and setting of standards to be used in planning for their development, and preparation of an annual report on the state of the environment to be prepared to the President."[7]

South Africa

Main article: South African environmental law



The Brazilian government created the Ministry of Environment in 1992 in order to develop better strategies of protecting the environment, use natural resources sustainably, and enforce public environmental policies. The Ministry of Environment has authority over policies involving environment, water resources, preservation, and environmental programs involving the Amazon.[8]


The Department of the Environment Act establishes the Department of the Environment in the Canadian government as well as the position Minister of the Environment. Their duties include “the preservation and enhancement of the quality of the natural environment, including water, air and soil quality; renewable resources, including migratory birds and other non-domestic flora and fauna; water; meteorology;"[9] The Environmental Protection Act is the main piece of Canadian environmental legislation that was put into place March 31, 2000. The Act focuses on “respecting pollution prevention and the protection of the environment and human health in order to contribute to sustainable development."[10] Other principle federal statutes include the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Species at Risk Act. When provincial and federal legislation are in conflict federal legislation takes precedence, that being said individual provinces can have their own legislation such as Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights, and Clean Water Act.


With the enactment of the 2008 Constitution, Ecuador became the first country in the world to codify the Rights of Nature. The Constitution, specifically Articles 10 and 71-74, recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the authority to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to remedy violations of these rights. The rights approach is a break away from traditional environmental regulatory systems, which regard nature as property and legalize and manage degradation of the environment rather than prevent it.[11]

The Rights of Nature articles in Ecuador's constitution are part of a reaction to a combination of political, economic, and social phenomena. Ecuador's abusive past with the oil industry, most famously the class-action litigation against Chevron, and the failure of an extraction-based economy and neoliberal reforms to bring economic prosperity to the region has resulted in the election of a New Leftist regime, led by President Rafael Correa, and sparked a demand for new approaches to development. In conjunction with this need, the principle of "Buen Vivir," or good living—focused on social, environmental and spiritual wealth versus material wealth—gained popularity among citizens and was incorporated into the new constitution.[12]

The influence of indigenous groups, from whom the concept of "Buen Vivir" originates, in the forming of the constitutional ideals also facilitated the incorporation of the Rights of Nature as a basic tenet of their culture and conceptualization of "Buen Vivir." [13]

United States

Considered in terms of historical precedence and worldwide emulation, the United States has been a world leader in the development and implementation of environmental law. While subject to criticism at home and abroad on issues of protection, enforcement, over-regulation, and imposition of externalities, the country remains an important source of environmental legal expertise and experience.


Laws from every stratum of the laws of the United States pertain to environmental issues. The United States Congress has passed a number of landmark environmental regulatory regimes, but many other federal laws are equally important, if less comprehensive. Concurrently, the legislatures of the fifty states have passed innumerable comparable sets of laws.[14] These state and federal systems are foliated with layer upon layer of administrative regulation. Meanwhile, the U.S. judicial system reviews not only the legislative enactments, but also the administrative decisions of the many agencies dealing with environmental issues. Where the statutes and regulations end, the common law begins.[15]

Federal statutes

Federal regulation

Consistent with the federal statutes that they administer, U.S. federal agencies promulgate regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations that fill out the broad programs enacted by Congress. Primary among these is Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, containing the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency. Other import CFR sections include Title 10 (energy), Title 18 (Conservation of Power and Water Resources), Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Title 33 (Navigable Waters), Title 36 (Parks, Forests and Public Property), Title 43 (Public Lands: Interior) and Title 50 (Wildlife and Fisheries).

Judicial decisions

The federal and state judiciaries have played an important role in the development of environmental law in the United States, in many cases resolving significant controversy regarding the application of federal environmental laws in favor of environmental interests. The decisions of the Supreme Court in cases such as Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee v. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (broadly reading the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act), Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill (broadly reading the Endangered Species Act), and, much more recently, Massachusetts v. EPA (requiring EPA to reconsider regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act) have had policy impacts far beyond the facts of the particular case.

Common law

The common law of tort is an important tool for the resolution of environmental disputes that fall beyond the confines of regulated activity. Prior to the modern proliferation of environmental regulation, the doctrines of nuisance (public or private), trespass, negligence, and strict liability apportioned harm and assigned liability for activities that today would be considered pollution and likely governed by regulatory regimes.[16] These doctrines remain relevant, and most recently have been used by plaintiffs seeking to impose liability for the consequences of global climate change.[17]

The common law also continues to play a leading role in American water law, in the doctrines of riparian rights and prior appropriation.


In the United States, responsibilities for the administration of environmental laws are divided between numerous federal and state agencies with varying, overlapping and sometimes conflicting missions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the most well-known federal agency, with jurisdiction over many of the country's national air, water and waste and hazardous substance programs.[18] Other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service pursue primarily conservation missions,[19] while still others, such as the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, tend to focus more on beneficial use of natural resources.[20]

Federal agencies operate within the limits of federal jurisdiction. For example, EPA's jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act is limited to "waters of the United States". Furthermore in many cases federal laws allow for more stringent regulation by states, and of transfer of certain federally mandated responsibilities from federal to state control. U.S. state governments, therefore, administering state law adopted under state police powers or federal law by delegation, uniformly include environmental agencies.[21] The extent to which state environmental laws are based on or depart from federal law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Thus, while a permit to fill non-federal wetlands might require a permit from a single state agency, larger and more complex endeavors—for example, the construction of a coal-fired power plant—might require approvals from numerous federal and state agencies.


In the United States, violations of environmental laws are generally civil offenses, resulting in monetary penalties and, perhaps, civil sanctions such as injunction. Many environmental laws also provide for criminal penalties for egregious violations. Environmental agencies often include separate enforcement offices, with duties including monitoring permitted activities, performing compliance inspections, issuing citations and prosecuting wrongdoing (civilly or criminally, depending on the violation). EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance is one such agency. Others, such as the United States Park Police, carry out more traditional law enforcement activities.

Adjudicatory proceedings for environmental violations are often handled by the agencies themselves under the strictures of administrative law. In some cases, appeals are also handled internally (for example, EPA's Environmental Appeals Board). Generally, final agency determinations may subsequently be appealed to the appropriate court.

Other environmental law enforcement agencies include:

  • Força Verde, a branch of the Brazilian Armed Forces which was established decades ago to protect against environmental crimes.[22]
  • Green Police, an environmental task force in New Jersey.[23]
  • Veteran Environmental Patrol of Israel started fielding uniformed officers in 2001.[23]
Education and training

Environmental law courses are offered as elective courses in the second and third years of JD study at many American law schools. Curricula vary: an introductory course might focus on the "big five" federal statutes—NEPA, CAA, CWA, CERCLA and RCRA (or FIFRA)—and may be offered in conjunction with a natural resources law course. Smaller seminars may be offered on more focused topics. Some U.S. law schools also offer an LLM or JSD specialization in environmental law. Additionally, several law schools host legal clinics that focus on environmental law, providing students with an opportunity to learn about environmental law in the context of real world disputes involving actual clients.[24] U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked Vermont Law School, Lewis & Clark Law School, and Pace University School of Law as the top three Environmental Law programs in the United States, with Lewis & Clark and Vermont frequently trading the top spot.[25]

Many American law schools host student-published law journals. The environmental law reviews at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU and Lewis & Clark Law School are regularly the most-cited such publications.[26]

International environmental lawyers often receive specialized training in the form of an LL.M. degree at U.S. institutions, after having a first law degree – often in another country from where they got their first law degree.


The Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network (AECEN) is an agreement between 16 Asian countries dedicated to improving cooperation with environmental laws in Asia. These countries include Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Maldives, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Lao PDR.[27]


According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "China has been working with great determination in recent years to develop, implement, and enforce a solid environmental law framework. Chinese officials face critical challenges in effectively implementing the laws, clarifying the roles of their national and provincial governments, and strengthening the operation of their legal system."[28] Explosive economic and industrial growth in China has led to significant environmental degradation, and China is currently in the process of developing more stringent legal controls.[29] The harmonization of Chinese society and the natural environment is billed as one of the country's top national priorities.[30]


The Basic Environmental Law is the basic structure of Japan’s environmental policies replacing the Basic Law for Environmental Pollution Control and the Nature Conservation Law. The updated law aims to address “global environmental problems, urban pollution by everyday life, loss of accessible natural environment in urban areas and degrading environmental protection capacity in forests and farmlands.”[31]

The three basic environmental principles that the Basic Environmental Law follows are “the blessings of the environment should be enjoyed by the present generation and succeeded to the future generations, a sustainable society should be created where environmental loads by human activities are minimized, and Japan should contribute actively to global environmental conservation through international cooperation.”[31] From these principles, the Japanese government have established policies such as “environmental consideration in policy formulation, establishment of the Basic Environment Plan which describes the directions of long-term environmental policy, environmental impact assessment for development projects, economic measures to encourage activities for reducing environmental load, improvement of social infrastructure such as sewerage system, transport facilities etc., promotion of environmental activities by corporations, citizens and NGOs, environmental education, and provision of information, promotion of science and technology."[31]

Middle East

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with countries in the Middle East to improve “environmental governance, water pollution and water security, clean fuels and vehicles, public participation, and pollution prevention.”[32]


Vietnam is currently working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on dioxin remediation and technical assistance in order to lower methane emissions. On March 2002, the U.S and Vietnam signed the U.S.-Vietnam Memorandum of Understanding on Research on Human Health and the Environmental Effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin.[33]


European Union

The European Union issues secondary legislation on environmental issues that are valid throughout the EU (so called regulations) and many directives that must be implemented into national legislation from the 27 member states (national states). Examples are the Regulation (EC) No. 338/97 on the implementation of CITES or the Directive 92/43/EEC on Fauna-Flora-Habitat. EU legislation is ruled in Article 249 Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Topics for common EU legislation are:

  • Climate change
  • Air pollution
  • Water protection and management
  • Waste management
  • Soil protection
  • Protection of nature, species and biodiversity
  • Noise pollution
  • Cooperation for the environment with third countries (other than EU member states)
  • Civil protection


The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation makes regulation regarding “conservation of natural resources, including the subsoil, water bodies, forests located in designated conservation areas, fauna and their habitat, in the field of hunting, hydrometeorology and related areas, environmental monitoring and pollution control, including radiation monitoring and control, and functions of public environmental policy making and implementation and statutory regulation."[34]


The main concerns on environmental issues in the Oceanic Region are “illegal releases of air and water pollutants, illegal logging/timber trade, illegal shipment of hazardous wastes, including e-waste and ships slated for destruction, and insufficient institutional structure/lack of enforcement capacity”.[35] The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) is an international organization between Australia, the Cook Islands, FMS, Fiji, France, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, USA, and Vanuatu. The SPREP was established in order to provide assistance in improving and protecting the environment as well as assure sustainable development for future generations.[36]


The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is the center piece of environmental legislation in the Australian Government. It sets up the “legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places”.[37] It also focuses on protecting world heritage properties, national heritage properties, wetlands of international importance, nationally threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species, Commonwealth marine areas, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and the environment surrounding nuclear activities.[37]

New Zealand

The Ministry for the Environment and Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment were established by the Environment Act 1986. These positions are responsible for advising the Minister on all areas of environmental legislation. A common theme of New Zealand’s environmental legislation is sustainably managing natural and physical resources, fisheries, and forests. The Resource Management Act 1991 is the main piece of environmental legislation that outlines the government’s strategy to managing the “environment, including air, water soil, biodiversity, the coastal environment, noise, subdivision, and land use planning in general.”[38]

Environmental treaties

Pollution, scarce resources, wild animals and plants do not respect political boundaries, making treaties an important aspect of environmental law. Numerous legally binding international agreements now encompass a wide variety of issue-areas, from terrestrial, marine and atmospheric pollution through to wildlife and biodiversity protection.

While the bodies that proposed, argued, agreed upon and ultimately adopted existing international agreements vary according to each agreement, certain conferences, including 1972's United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, 1983's World Commission on Environment and Development, 1992's United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and 2002's World Summit on Sustainable Development have been particularly important.

Organizing principles

International environmental law's development has included the statement and adoption of a number of important guiding principles. As with all international law, international environmental law brings up questions of sovereignty, legal reciprocity ("comity") and even perhaps the Golden Rule. Other guiding principles include the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle, the principle of sustainable development, environmental procedural rights, common but differentiated responsibilities, intragenerational and intergenerational equity, "common concern of humankind", and common heritage.


Treaties, protocols, conventions, etc.

International environmental agreements are generally multilateral (or sometimes bilateral) treaties (a.k.a. convention, agreement, protocol, etc.). The majority of such conventions deal directly with specific environmental issues. There are also some general treaties with one or two clauses referring to environmental issues but these are rarer. There are about 1000 environmental law treaties in existence today; no other area of law has generated such a large body of conventions on a specific topic.

Protocols are subsidiary agreements built from a primary treaty. They exist in many areas of international law but are especially useful in the environmental field, where they may be used to regularly incorporate recent scientific knowledge. They also permit countries to reach agreement on a framework that would be contentious if every detail were to be agreed upon in advance. The most widely known protocol in international environmental law is the Kyoto Protocol, which followed from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Organizations, institutions, bodies, etc.

Multilateral environmental agreements are sometimes creating an International Organization, Institution or Body that implements the agreement. Major examples are the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Customary international law

Customary international law is an important source of international environmental law. These are the norms and rules that countries follow as a matter of custom and they are so prevalent that they bind all states in the world. When a principle becomes customary law is not clear cut and many arguments are put forward by states not wishing to be bound. Examples of customary international law relevant to the environment include the duty to warn other states promptly about icons of an environmental nature and environmental damages to which another state or states may be exposed, and Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration ('good neighbourliness' or sic utere).

International judicial decisions

International environmental law also includes the opinions of international courts and tribunals. While there are few and they have limited authority, the decisions carry much weight with legal commentators and are quite influential on the development of international environmental law. One of the biggest challenges in international decisions is to determine an adequate compensation for environmental damages.[39]

The courts include: the International Court of Justice (ICJ); the international Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); the European Court of Justice; European Court of Human Rights[40] and other regional treaty tribunals. Arguably the World Trade Organisation's Dispute Settlement Board (DSB) is getting a say on environmental law also.

Important cases have included:

Administration and enforcement

Education and training

The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law is a network of some 60 law schools worldwide that specialize in the research and teaching of environmental law.[41]


See also


External links


  • ECOLEX (Gateway to Environmental Law)
  • Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide(E-LAW)
  • Centre for International Environmental Law
  • Wildlife Interest Group, American Society of International Law
  • EarthRights International
  • Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense
  • United Kingdom Environmental Law Association
  • Lexadin global law database

United States

  • American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy and Resources
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Environmental Law Institute (ELI)
  • EarthJustice


  • West Coast Environmental Law (non-profit law firm)
  • Ecojustice
  • Canadian Environmental Law Association
  • Environmental Law Centre (of Alberta)

European Union

  • Europa: Environmental rules of the European Union
  • Europa: Summaries of Legislation - Environment

Template:US Environmental law

Template:Environmental humanities

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