Environment Law: Meaning and Significance

Over the past several decades, growing public awareness of threats to the environment, informed by the warnings of scientists, has led to demands that the law protects the natural surroundings on which human well-being depends. Under growing pressure from national and international public opinion, governments began to demonstrate concern over the general state of the environment during the 1960s and introduced legislation to combat pollution of inland waters, oceans, and air, and to safeguard certain cities or areas. Simultaneously, they established special administrative organs, ministries, or environmental agencies, to preserve more effectively the quality of life of their citizens. Developments in international environmental law paralleled this evolution within states, reflecting a growing consensus to accord priority to resolving environmental problems. Today, national and international environmental law is complex and vast, comprising thousands of rules that aim to protect the earth’s living and non-living elements and its ecological processes.

What is the meaning of Environment Law?

The word "environment" is derived from the ancient French word "environner," meaning to encircle. By broadly applying to surroundings, environment can include the aggregate of natural, social, and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community. Thus, environmental problems can be deemed to include such problems as traffic congestion, crime, and noise. Geographically, "environment" can refer to a limited area or encompass the entire planet, including the atmosphere and stratosphere.

Section 2(a) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, defines "environment," which means and includes water, air, and land, and the inter-relationship which exists among and between water, air, and land and human beings, other living creatures, plants, microorganisms, and property.

Section 2(c) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, defines "environmental pollution," which means the presence in the environment of any environmental pollutant.

Importance of Environmental Law

The environment is essential for human existence. In order to protect the environment, legislation must be in place. The rules governing environmental protection provide us with a road map for doing so. Following are some reasons why environmental legislation is important −

  • The main purpose of environmental law is to safeguard both the environment and human health. The environment law ensures that behaviors don't endanger the health of the environment, people, or animals.

  • Waste management must be done in a way that doesn't harm the environment or people's health, and it must be disposed of in accordance with the rules and guidelines that have been set in this regard.

  • The creation of industries and manufacturing facilities requires environmental laws. The environmental law will guarantee that industry complies with all legal requirements to save and preserve our environment.

Kinds of Environmental Pollution

Environmental pollution comes in seven different forms, each of which is listed here with an example to help you better understand how we can impact the environment and one another −

Air Pollution

The release of chemicals and particulates into the atmosphere. Common gaseous pollutants include carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and nitrogen oxides produced by industry and motor vehicles. Photochemical ozone and smog are created as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons react to sunlight.

Light Pollution

It includes light trespass, over illumination and astronomical interference.

Noise Pollution

It encompasses roadway noise, aircraft noise, industrial noise as well as high-intensity sonar.

Soil Pollution

It occurs when chemicals are released by spill or underground leakage. Among the most significant contaminants are hydrocarbons, heavy metals, MTBE, herbicides, pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons.

Thermal Pollution

Is a temperature change in natural water bodies caused by human influence, such as use of water as coolant in a power plant.

Visual Pollution

Which can refer to the presence of overhead power lines, motorway billboards, scarred landforms (as from strip mining), open storage of trash, municipal solid waste or space debris.

Water Pollution

By the discharge of wastewater from commercial and industrial waste (intentionally or through spills) into surface water; discharge of untreated domestic sewage, and chemical contaminants, such as chlorine, from treated sewage; release of waste and contaminants into surface runoff flowing to surface waters (including urban runoff and agricultural runoff, which may contain chemical fertilizers and pesticides); waste disposal and leaching into groundwater; eutrophication and littering.

Important Environmental Law Conferences

The contributions by key international conferences on the environment to the development of international environmental law.

Stockholm Conference, 1972

Environmentalism, which was founded on scientific evidence of environmental degradation, first came into existence in the early 1960s. The conclusion that national policies alone are insufficient to protect the environment resulted from this. The need for the international community to develop a plan for the preservation of the environment was emphasized. The United Nations organized the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in response to this demand (Stockholm Conference).

The Stockholm Conference produced a non-binding Stockholm Declaration as well as an action plan with 109 suggestions. International environmental law has a solid foundation i.e., the Stockholm Declaration.

The Action Plan classifies the specific environmental challenges to be addressed into three categories 

  • Worldwide measures to support national and international environmental assessment and management efforts.

  • A global environmental assessment program.

  • Environmental management initiatives.

Even though it wasn't originally and specifically addressed in the UN Charter, one significant accomplishment of the Stockholm Conference was that environmental preservation was made a UN mandate.

Rio Conference, 1992

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Conference, was the second significant international conference on the environment that was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

There are five documents from the Rio Conference that outline the global agenda for sustainable development in the twenty-first century. They are 

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a non-binding statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation, and sustainable use of the environment;

  • Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of measures and actions to explicitly advance sustainable development;

  • The United Nations Framework Convention on climate change;

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity; and

  • The Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conserva (Rio Forest Principles).

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), created as a result of the Rio Conference, was established to ensure effective UNCED follow-up. 2013 saw the demise of the CSD and the introduction of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD or the Summit) was held in Johannesburg in 2002 as a result of a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly. The summit's goals were to perform a 10-year assessment of Agenda 21 and to ensure a balance between the three mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development—economic development, social development, and environmental protection. In terms of participation, the WSSD represents a significant improvement over the Rio Conference. Delegates from 191 governments were among the approximately 21,000 attendees at the summit.

The WSSD was first organized to advance sustainable development. However, the summit's major focus ultimately turned out to be on growth, with environmental concerns receiving barely a passing mention. It did not significantly advance the environmental agenda.

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) 2012

The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro from June 20 to June 22. In "The Future We Want," the main problems and difficulties encountered on the way to sustainable development's achievement are outlined. Regarding the style of the discourse, Rio+20 was largely a continuation of the WSSD. The document addresses nearly all development-related topics, including inclusive and equitable economic growth, the decline in inequality, the improvement of living standards at the base of the pyramid, fair social development, and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The three pillars of sustainable development—economic development, social development, and environmental protection—as stated in the WSSD outcome paper are reiterated throughout the document.

It also supports the idea that eliminating poverty is a crucial prerequisite for sustainable development. The resulting document also highlights the significance of technology transfer to poor nations. Additionally, it was decided to strengthen the institutional foundation for sustainable development.

In order to achieve sustainable development, the Rio+20 Declaration does not offer any specific "means of implementation" or new and additional resources.


Environmental law has expanded dramatically both in quantitative and qualitative terms over the last few decades. While it originated with a limited focus on state responsibility for trans-boundary harm and the protection of a limited number of species, Environmental Law has brought about positive changes in controlling environmental degradation in many areas (e.g., protection of the ozone layer), but it proved to be inadequate and ineffective in many other areas (e.g., climate change). In some cases, old environmental problems have worsened, and new environmental threats and challenges have emerged.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the environmental rule of law?

Ans: Environmental rule of law is central to sustainable development. It integrates environmental needs with the essential elements of the rule of law, and provides the basis for improving environmental governance. It highlights environmental sustainability by connecting it with fundamental rights and obligations.

Q2. Who is the father of environmental law?

Ans: Ramdeo Misra is the father of environmental law.

Q3. What are the main sources of environmental law?

Ans: International environmental law is derived primarily from three sources: customary international law; international treaties; and judicial decisions of international courts. Customary international law refers to a set of unwritten laws that have arisen from widespread custom and usage among nations.

Q4. Why is environmental law important?

Ans: It provides for a comprehensive and integrated strategy to prevent and minimize pollution through a multi-sectoral and participatory approach involving all the stakeholders.