International Environmental Law

It is now widespread agreement that there are a number of environmental challenges facing the world today and it can only be resolved through cooperation on a global scale. Science and technological developments have increased our ability to comprehend the environmental repercussions of numerous naturally occurring occurrences as well as human actions. Over the last several decades, there has been an exponential growth of multilateral environmental accords encompassing a wide variety of topics such as ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, toxic and hazardous goods and wastes, river pollution, and freshwater resource depletion.

What does International Environmental Law Define?

International environmental law is a new branch of international law. It has expanded significantly in recent years, mainly after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The development of international environmental law has had mixed results. While some treaty regimes have been successful in providing the desired objectives (e.g., the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, 1985), others have struggled (e.g., the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992).

History of International Environmental Law

The first bilateral and multinational environmental accords date back to the 1800s. They were especially concerned with the preservation of fisheries and the conservation of flora and animals. Conservation problems were also addressed in the first international environmental arbitration case. The Fur Seal Arbitration (1893) was a conflict involving Great Britain and the United States over the latter's alleged overexploitation of fur seals outside of its borders.

Trail Smelter (United States vs. Canada) (1938) The famous transboundary pollution case, United Nations Reports on International Arbitral Awards Vol III, 1905–1982, included a disagreement between the United States and Canada over sulphur dioxide emissions from a smelter in Trail, British Columbia, which were allegedly causing harm to forests and agriculture in Washington state on the other side of the border. The case established the notion that nations have a responsibility to prevent cross-border harm.

The formation of the United Nations and specialized bodies with environmental mandates also aided in the formulation of early international environmental law, for example −

  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

  • Organization for the Promotion of Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO)

  • The International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN) has been renamed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, on the other hand, laid the groundwork for present international environmental legislation (Stockholm Conference). This was the first worldwide meeting devoted to global environmental challenges. Sweden convened the meeting in response to acid rain and pollution occurrences in Northern Europe caused by growing industry.

As a result of the Stockholm Conference, the following documents were adopted −

  • A declaration of 26 environmental and development principles (Stockholm Declaration)

  • An action plan with 109 recommendations

  • A resolution on institutional and financial arrangements

Principles of International Environmental Law

International environmental discussions have produced a number of ideas and regulations that have affected the worldwide evolution of environmental law. According to Phillippe Sands KC's textbook, Principles of International Environmental Law, key principles include −

Principle of Preventing Transboundary Pollution

The sovereign right of states to exploit their own resources in accordance with their own environmental policies, as well as the responsibility to ensure that activities under their jurisdiction or control do not harm the environment of other states or areas beyond national jurisdiction; derived from the Stockholm Declaration, principle 21.

The Polluter-Pays Principle

The principle that the polluter should bear the costs of pollution they cause, taking into account the larger public interest. It is mentioned in the 1972 OECD Council Recommendation on Guiding Principles Concerning the International Economic Aspects of Environmental Policies.

Principle of Preventive Action

The duty to limit or control actions that might potentially create or risk environmental harm in order to avert environmental damage at an early stage; exemplified by early arbitration cases and the Stockholm Declaration

The Precautionary Principle

The notion that, where there are substantial or permanent dangers to the environment, a lack of full scientific confidence should not be used to postpone cost-effective steps to avert environmental deterioration; represented in the Rio Declaration, principle 15

Principle of Cooperation

The basic principle of good neighborliness, in which states are expected to consider the interests and well-being of the rest of the world in social, economic, and commercial affairs; drawn from Article 74 of the United Nations Charter.

The Principle of Sustainable Development

The notion that states must ensure sustainable resource usage and development. The World Commission on Environment and Development's (Brundtland Study) 1987 report defined sustainable development as: "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations' ability to satisfy their own needs."

The Principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility

The principle that states have a common responsibility to protect the environment but differentiated responsibilities due to their different contributions to global environmental degradation, e.g., developed countries bear a greater responsibility than developing countries; reflected in the Rio Declaration, principle 7.


Over the last few decades, international environmental law has grown significantly in both quantitative and qualitative ways. While it starts with a narrow focus on state responsibility for transboundary harm and the protection of a small number of species, international environmental law has evolved into a critical component of international law that addresses not only environmental protection but also a variety of other related issues such as poverty eradication and trade.

While international environmental law has resulted in beneficial developments in limiting environmental deterioration in some areas (for example, ozone layer protection), it has been shown to be insufficient and ineffective in many others (for example, climate change). Old environmental problems have worsened in certain situations, while new environmental dangers and difficulties have developed.


Q1. What is the objective of international environmental law?

Ans. Its primary objectives are to act as an authoritative advocate for the global environment, to assist countries in establishing the global environmental agenda, and to promote the consistent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the UN system.

Q2. What are the major sources of international environmental law?

Ans. Treaties and international agreements are the main sources of international environmental law.

Q3. What is international environmental law and policy?

Ans. Climate protection, sustainable energy policy, biological variety preservation, and the conservation of forests, oceans, and soils are all topics covered by international environmental policy. Desertification, sustainable waste management, and protection against dangerous compounds are other connected subjects.

Q4. What are the major concerns of international environmental law?

Ans. Major concerns of international environmental law are: biodiversity, climate change, ozone depletion, toxic and hazardous compounds, desertification, marine resources, and air, land, and water quality are all covered by international environmental law.

Updated on: 16-Mar-2023


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