What is International Environmental Law?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2020
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International environmental law refers to treaties, statutes, and judicial decisions that involve multiple nations. Improving and creating international environmental law is the goal of many conservationists and environmentalist groups, who believe that a comprehensive global approach must be taken to stop environmental threats from growing stronger. There are several different ways environmental law can be created, including through protocols and treaties, international courts such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and customary law.

Many consider international environmental law even more critical to environmental protection than national law. When all nations share the same planet, harm done by one country can quickly disrupt the health, livelihood, and peaceful existence of its neighbors. Reckless use of the environment by any country can result in devastation to all, whether through depletion of natural resources, extinction, or greenhouse gas emissions. By creating international environmental law, countries can band together to bear the costs and challenges imposed by sustainable practices.


There are many different areas that environmental law may cover. The sustainable use and management of natural resources, including fossil fuels, minerals, and fresh water, is an important component of many international treaties. Prevention of damage to shared environments, such as through air or water pollution, aridization, and deforestation, is also a major factor. Cooperative programs that involve the scientific investigation of possible environmental threats, such as biodiversity research, may be the result of international environmental law. Threats to human safety, such as nuclear disarmament and the removal of landmines, may also be issues considered by international environmental lawmakers.

There are several different sources of environmental law. Treaties are often created by multi-national organizations that meet primarily to discuss the creation of environmental law in meetings known as conventions. Many modern environmental laws are spawned from conventions created through the auspices of the United Nations (UN). The United Nations also plays a large part in the creation of environmental law by judicial precedent, since the most prominent international court, the ICJ, is a wing of the UN.

Custom is another important source of international environmental law. Laws created from custom rely on long-standing, but not always official, standards of behavior by and between nations. An example of a customary behavior that might lead to a formal international law is informing neighboring heads of state if an oil spill has occurred on shared waters. Judicial decisions, treaties, and protocols may all use custom as a basis for the creation of law.


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