Global and regional environmental issues are increasingly the subject of international law. Debates over environmental concerns implicate core principles of international law and have been the subject of numerous international agreements and declarations.

Environmental law, is also known as environmental and natural resources law, and it is a general term describing all treaties, statutes, regulations, common and customary laws addressing the effects of human activity on the natural environment.

Customary international law is an important source of international environmental law. These are the norms and rules that countries follow as a matter of custom and not due to a treaty. When a principle becomes customary law is not clear cut and many arguments are put forward by states not wishing to be bound. However, numerous legally binding international agreements have been signed since this topic became an issue, and they include a wide range of areas, from terrestrial, marine and atmospheric pollution through to wildlife and biodiversity protection.

However, the speed with which awareness of global environmental issues has reached the international political agenda shows that customary law usually takes second place to treaty law in the evolution of legal norms as treaties have been the main method by which the international community regulates activities which threaten the environment.

As this is a worldwide concern, international environmental agreements are generally multilateral treaties (between many countries – vs Bilateral treaties).

According to the United Nations – Environmental Law section, some of the major treaties are:

  • Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, 1985;
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, 1989;
  • Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2000;
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992 (UNFCCC); and
  • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, 1994 (UNCCD)

We often hear the term "Protocols" when we speak about environmental law, such as the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1997 and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, 1987

These are subsidiary agreements that are built from a primary treaty. They are especially useful in the environmental field, because they may be used to regularly incorporate recent scientific knowledge. They also permit countries to reach agreement on a framework that would be contentious if every detail were to be agreed upon in advance.

International treaties are agreements between Sovereign states or International organizations. These treaties express the parties' will and are legally binding under international law. However, when it comes to international law, there is no executive organ/power, as all subjects are equal (i.e. sovereign states) and are voluntarily bound by the relevant treaty. Thus, it makes it more challenging to enforce those laws and regulations.

Environmental Law is also a regional concern; in the past 30 years the European Union ("EU") has adopted a substantial and diverse range of environmental measures aimed at improving the quality of the environment for European citizens and providing them with a high quality of life. The environment can only be protected if Member States properly implement the legislation they have signed up to.

In addition to any implementation and enforcement action taken at national level, the European Commission fulfils the role of "Guardian of the Treaty": according to Article 211 first indent of the EC Treaty, the Commission is to ensure that the provisions of the Treaty and the measures taken by the institutions pursuant thereto are applied. Whatever the means used, the overall objective of the Commission is to ensure that EU environmental legislation is fully implemented, in a timely manner and correctly.

Following so many treaties, Protocols, laws and regulations, we can only ask ourselves if all these regulations have positively affected the environment.

Although climate change is the biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth, it seems that all environmental concerns keep getting worse and no problem is solved.

According to António Guterres – United Nations Secretary General, "climate change is the defining challenge of our time, yet it is still accelerating faster than our efforts to address it. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are higher than they have been for 800,000 years, and they are increasing. So, too, are the catastrophic effects of our warming planet – extreme storms, droughts, fires, floods, melting ice and rising sea levels".

Patricia Espinosa, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary mentioned that: "Our planet is warming. An astonishing 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century. The past three years were the hottest since records began".

In his article regarding James Hansen's legacy, Eric Holthaus said:

"If climate change was an urgent problem 30 years ago, it is now an emergency"

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.