International environmental law

International environmental law is the body of international law that concerns the protection of the global environment.

Originally associated with the principle that states must not permit the use of their territory in such a way as to injure the territory of other states, international environmental law has since been expanded by a plethora of legally-binding international agreements. These encompass a wide variety of issue-areas, from terrestrial, marine and atmospheric pollution through to wildlife and biodiversity protection.

The key constitutional moments in the development of international environmental law are:

  • the 1972 United Nations Convention on the Human Environment (UNCHE), held in Stockholm, Sweden;
  • the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, which coined the phrase 'sustainable development';
  • the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment focused on the 'human' environment. The conference issued the Declaration on the Human Environment, a statement containing 26 principles and 109 recommendations (now referred to as the Stockholm Declaration). The creation of an environmental agency was also approved, now known as UNEP. In addition, there was the adoption of a Stockholm Action Program. There were no legally binding outcomes resulting from the Stockholm Conference. Principle 21 of the Declaration was a restatement of law already in existence since Roman times, namely that of 'good neighbourliness'. The Action Plan was never successfully followed by any country.

The 1992 Rio conference (also known as the Earth Summit) led to the adoption of several important legally binding environmental treaties, being the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. In addition to these, the parties adopted a 'soft law' (non-binding agreements) Declaration on Environment and Development which reaffirmed the Stockholm Declaration and provided 27 principles guiding environment and development (now referred to as the Rio Declaration). Another influential soft law document that the parties adopted was Agenda 21, a guide to implementation of the treaties agreed to at the Summit and a guide as to the principles of sustainable development. Agenda 21 also established the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Finally, the non-legal, non-binding Forest Principles were formed at the Earth Summit.

A further meeting was held in 2002, known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Notable is the absence from its title of the word 'environment'. Although this meeting was held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit, it is considered by many environmentalists and environmental lawyers to have been less than successful in environmental terms. It attained only limited progress towards stricter global regulation of human impacts on the natural environment. Nonetheless the WSSD brought a renewed emphasis on the synergies between combatting poverty and improving the environment.

Sources of International Environmental Law

International environmental law derives its content from four main sources:

  • International agreements (also called treaties, conventions, international legal instruments, pacts, protocols, covenants)
  • Customary international law
  • General principles of law
  • Other/ new sources (e.g., court decisions (case-law), resolutions, declarations, doctrine, recommendations given by world organisations etc.)

International agreements

International environmental agreements can be bilateral, regional or multilateral in nature. The multilateral environmental agreements are frequently referred to as MEAs for short and have become far more common in recent decades. Treaty law is known as a traditional source of law.

The majority of the conventions relating to international environmental law are specific; that means that they deal directly with environmental issues. There are 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 like mini-agreements that "hang off" the main treaty. They exist in many areas of international law but are especially useful in the environment field, where they can be used to update scientific knowledge. They also permit countries to reach agreement on a framework agreement that would otherwise be contentious, by allowing the details to be left to a later date for determination. Protocols are generally much easier to generate than a treaty and they can enter into force very quickly. The most widely-known protocol in international environmental law is the Kyoto Protocol.

Customary international law

Customary international law is important in 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 emergencies of an environmental nature and environmental damages to which another state or states may be exposed
  • Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration ('good neighbourliness' or sic utere)

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.

The courts include: the International Court of Justice (ICJ); the Law of the Sea Court; the European Court of Justice; regional treaty tribunals. Arguably the World Trade Organisation's Dispute Settlement Board (DSB) is getting a say on environmental law also.

Organising Principles

International environmental law is heavily influenced by a collection of organising principles.

As with international law, the chief guiding principle is that of sovereignty, which means that a country (state) has full power in its own territory to do as it pleases (subject to international laws it has agreed to). All other international environmental law principles evolved with this principle in the background and to varying degrees have either supported it or modified it to some extent.

Some of the organising principles of international environmental law include:

Key International Environmental Law Cases

Important cases have included:

Training of International Environmental Lawyers

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

Notable programs include:

International Environmental Law Groups

Groups active in the area include:

International Environmental Law Research Portals

Here are some of the most useful research portals for international environmental law:

See also

External links

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