What Is The Novelty Of Environmental Law?

by Njoud Mashouka

Throughout history governments and international institutions passed laws aimed at protecting the environment on the basis of protecting  human health.  These date back to as early as 80 AD, when the Senate of Rome passed legislation that aimed at ensuring the supply of clean water in the city [1].  From then on, governmental figures and legislators passed laws related to the prevention of environmental contamination to protect human health.  The first law specifically tackling coal and chemical manufacture appeared in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, passed by the British government [2].

Significant environmental law and public concern matured after the Second World War [3]. The United Nations agreed upon several bilateral and regional treaties addressing environmental destruction such as overfishing.  At the time these concerns were primarily due to economic protection. Today the threats imposed by the climate crisis and rising global emissions are more concerning. The climate crisis is conceivably the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning now more than ever before, effective environmental law is necessary for survival. In fact, there is a significant increase in global public concern about environmental issues whether from civil society, corporations, or national and international bodies.  

The effectiveness of environmental law in today’s world

Environmental threats currently facing humanity, such as extreme rainfall, rising sea levels, and longer droughts, are a result of past and continuing economic activities.  Failure to act early led to higher global emissions and consequences.  Unfortunately, environmental legislation after WWII did not result in significant improvements in environmental quality.  For years, scientific research warned us about the consequences of the climate crisis on our ecosystem.  This ranges from extreme weather changes, rising sea levels, and extreme drought hindering human rights and livelihood.  

Such economic activities were mainly enjoyed by developed nations during the Industrial Revolution, and therefore most international environmental treaties attempt to recognize this.  For instance, the Paris Agreement distinguishes between the role of developed and developing countries in reducing emissions and financing climate mitigation.  

Nonetheless, regardless of such distinctions what international and regional environmental law covers is the relation between human rights and environmental protection.  Under the Paris Agreement, countries made commitments to reduce emissions, requiring new laws to do so, as environmental protection laws are fundamental for protecting human rights. This inter-relation is based on the following principles [4]:

a.     Environmental law incorporates human rights by ensuring environmental protection

b.     Human rights law includes an environmental aspect to ensure the fulfillment of all rights

c.     Without a safe and healthy environment, human rights cannot be achieved

d.     International environmental law sets out the legal duties of individuals to ensure the protection of the environment and thus the protection of their own rights

Thus, environmental law protects necessities which are at risk due to climate change:  the right to life, health, food, water, and sanitation.  The question remains, if human rights cannot be guaranteed without environmental protection, why is environmental law rarely effective?

Implementing environmental laws is challenging due to several reasons, and its effectiveness is surely questionable.  A shortage of environmental leglislation is certainly not the issue; by 2017 almost 180 countries adopted environmental framework laws [5]. Rather, the issue lies in enforcement.  This is either due to the lack of necessary mandates, or lack of resources to enforce and track violators.  On an international level, lack of enforcement is mainly because most of the passed laws are not tailored to local contexts.  

To improve the effectiveness of environmental law, a thorough analysis of the design of environmental laws must be done to identify weaker clauses that are not applicable to local contexts.  Improved legislation is useless without improved implementation, and thus institutional bodies passing environmental laws must also publish action plans to guide countries, companies, and individuals to follow and implement the laws.  Humanity can no longer afford to face challenges that prevent the effectiveness of environmental law.  There is no turning back from loss of biodiversity and environmental remediation is costly in time and resources; the only way forward is implementing stricter and more effective environmental protection laws.   

Reference List

[1] C. Berhane, Introduction to Environmental Law, URL: https://www.abyssinialaw.com/study-on-line/item/463-introduction-to-environmental-law-from-international-and-national-law-perspectives, [Last accessed 17.04.22]
[2] Marie-Louise Larsson,The Law of Environmental Damage-Liability and Reparation, published by Kluwer Law International
[3] Dinah Shelton, Human Rights, Health, and Environmental Protection, PDF: https://www.who.int/hhr/Series_1%20%20Sheltonpaper_rev1.pdf
[4] Environmental Laws Impeded by Lack of Enforcement, URL: https://sdg.iisd.org/news/environmental-laws-impeded-by-lack-of-enforcement-first-ever-global-assessment-finds/, [Last accessed 17.04.22]
Categories Environmental Law

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