International environmental law (IEL) is a branch of public international law. It is concerned with environmental, sustainability and related issues at the international and regional levels, as well as requiring an understanding of how the relevant international environmental laws are translated into domestic laws. It focuses on how human beings interact with the environment, both how we affect it and how we are affected by the environment. The law is also concerned with the benefits human beings can gain from such environmental interaction, along with and the harms we can do to it via our activities.

International environmental law comprises rules, laws, norms, treaties and other legal approaches to protecting and conserving the global environment. It is a vast field and it is difficult to find precise boundaries and international environment law must also account for issues arising as a result of development, sustainability, health and safety, poverty alleviation, disaster management and so forth, as these are all interconnected with environmental protection and conservation.

International environmental legal experts need to work in tandem with a team of interdisciplinary associates from a range of fields in order to be able to better comprehend the complexities to be regulated by law. This includes working with scientists (chemists, biologists, physicists, ecologists, etc.), policymakers, social scientists, doctors and health professionals, academics, etc., to ensure that a holistic and interactive approach is taken to regulating environmental matters.

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History of international environmental law[edit | edit source]

The history of IEL is a recent one. The first real multilateral treaty that is often cited as the first subject of IEL is that of the International Convention for the Protection of Birds Useful to Agriculture from 1902. This introduced such regulatory techniques as closed and open seasons, but it was an anthropocentric oriented approach to environmental protection. More modern thinking recognises that the environment has intrinsic value and this is reflected in the later treaties relevant to IEL.

Environmental protection at an international level became more pressing for states in between the two world wars. Two whaling conventions were negotiated due to the invention of more effective harpooning technologies that threatened the whale species. Another whale convention was passed in 1946, after World War II.

The practical commencement of IEL can be traced to the Stockholm Conference (United Nations Conference on the Human Environment) in 1972.[1] This Conference brought together the concerns of many States that environmental protection needed to be undertaken through agreed guidelines across the world, via institutions with the mandate and means to implement environmental protection initiatives. The outcome was the Stockholm Declaration, The meeting agreed upon a Declaration containing 26 principles concerning the environment and development; an Action Plan with 109 recommendations, and a Resolution.[1] This Declaration required States to start taking action to protect the environment. Although it is a soft law document (legally non-binding), it has greatly influenced the development of IEL and relevant laws and some of its principles crystallised into customary international law (therefore now considered binding).

Twenty years after this Conference (in 1992), another large environmentally focused meeting was held in Rio, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known colloquially as the Earth Summit. This Conference saw a much stronger participation from developing states. One outcome from this Conference was the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which included the concept of sustainable development and its three pillars of environmental protection, economic development and social considerations. From this time, IEL had to take both economic and social considerations into account at the same time as environmental protection. Many other principles that underpin IEL stem from the Rio Declaration, including the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle and environmental impact assessment. Three Conventions were opened for signature at this Conference as well, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles were also developed.

Ten years later, in 2002, another conference was held in Johannesburg, known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) or the ONG Earth Summit 2002.[2] This Conference produced the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, an extension of the direction of the Rio Declaration. Sustainable development as a principle was further supported and highlighted the importance of poverty alleviation for environmental protection. From this point, the inclusion of sustainable development has been implicit in the discipline of IEL.

Ten years after the Johannesburg Earth Summit, another Conference was convened, known as the Rio 2012, Rio+20 Conference, or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in full.[3] This Summit built on the principles laid down in both Rio and Johannesburg as well as including the principle of "green economy".

Pulled together, all of these Conferences and Summits have laid down major groundwork in the form of principles, treaties, agreements, declarations and norms that inform the development and practice of IEL.

The practice of international environmental law[edit | edit source]

IEL is not an abstraction or a bunch of theories. It is a real world, practical and actionable discipline that is regularly in use at the international through to domestic levels of environmental and related laws, governance, regimes and institutions. The legal framework of IEL can inform, underpin and provide enforcement support for policy, technical solutions and the daily work of environmental and related organizations.

International environmental law experts work in tandem with policy, technology, science, engineering and other experts, to create binding and enforceable outcomes to protect and conserve the environment in question. These strong interdisciplinary relationships provide an important aspect of practising IEL.

Topics covered by international environmental law[edit | edit source]

IEL covers both conceptual and substantive areas of law and policy.

Here are some of the various areas that influence/inform or are impacted by, practised or covered by IEL:

Substantive areas:

  • Biological diversity conservation, habitat conservation
  • Endangered species
  • Water resources
  • Energy, including renewable energy
  • Law of the Sea, EEZs, marine protection, marine pollution
  • Climate change, linkages with biodiversity, health, etc.
  • Pollution, water, atmosphere, land, etc.
  • Deforestation, forestry, linkages between biodiversity and forests
  • Indigenous rights, human rights and the environment
  • Environment and trade (including CITES)
  • Desertification
  • Crime and the environment, war and environment
  • Comparative environmental law (between and among states)
  • Regulation of the environment
  • Community health
  • Treaty laws, state responsibility

Conceptual areas:

  • Stakeholders, key actors, key institutions, the roles played by these participants and those impacted
  • Hard and soft law instruments
  • Environmental law principles (precautionary principle, intergenerational equity, polluter pays), both embedded and evolving principles
  • Implementation, compliance and enforcement - included innovations in compliance
  • Environmental governance, institutions, regimes, commitments, negotiations

Sources and citations[edit | edit source]

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Authors Felicity
License CC-BY-SA-3.0
Language English (en)
Translations Russian, Tamil, Marathi, Chinese, Bangla
Related 5 subpages, 7 pages link here
Impact 1,063 page views
Created January 27, 2016 by Felicity
Modified June 10, 2024 by Kathy Nativi
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