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Environmental Law: History, Sources, Treaties and Setbacks Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 25th, 2022


The environment is the set of all things, both living and non-living, that are found in a given locality. Interdependence among elements in an ecosystem has led to misuse of the environment by human beings calling for regulations to protect the environment. Environmental law refers to the set of regulations that have been established to govern interactions between actions of human beings and natural aspects of the environment, to reduce negative impacts of human activities on nature.

This paper seeks to discuss environmental laws. The paper will look into legal establishments that have been made under environmental laws such as statutes, regulations, and treaties on environmental laws.

History of environmental law

The history of environmental law can be traced to the seventeenth century. Governance of territories at that time called for rulers to establish rules for the smooth running of their jurisdictions. In some regions of Carolina, for example, regulations had by the end of the seventeenth century been passed to ensure the safety of living organisms in the environment.

In the year 1671, a regulation was passed by the colonial authorities in Carolina prohibiting the pollution of water bodies that could be harmful to live organisms that inhabited the water bodies. The regulation provided that a person who “cast into any of the creeks, streams or inland waters of this state any impurities that are poisonous to fish or destructive to their spawn” (SCDHEC, n.d., p. 1) would be liable to face the law.

The need to protect organisms in the environment, to preserve the environment as well as make the environment safe for the habitation of both human beings and other living organisms has led to the institution of measures that target to regulate the usage of the environment to avoid pollution and overexploitation. Regulations have since been put in place at different levels including national and international levels. A series of laws governing the environment continued to be established in the United States.

The federal government of the United States, for example, enacted an act in the year 1899 for environmental preservation: the “river and harbor act of 1899” was meant to put to end acts of pollution of water bodies that were used for transportation. Other legislation such as the “oil pollution act of 1924” and “the water pollution act of 1948” among other legislation were some of the nationally instituted environmental laws in the United States. Further legislations have since been enacted in the United States to regulate the usage of environmental resources (SCDHEC, n.d.).

The environmental risks, some caused by human actions and others caused by natural phenomena, have also over the past spread to become global issues calling for unified efforts across the nations to help in solving the emerging environmental crisis. The development of globalization in political, social, and economic aspects has also unified the world to more of a single territory with some of its issues being solved centrally in addition to territorial measures that are also taken care of at national levels.

Globalization has therefore integrated processes of environmental legislations that were previously only undertaken at territorial levels. This central development has led to internationally established bodies to monitor and regulate environmental issues through regulatory rules that have internationally been recognized as global environmental laws. The establishment of uniform environmental regulations has also been facilitated by countries “transplanting law and regulatory policy innovations of other nations” (Yang and Percival 2008, p. 1).

The adoption of uniform regulatory measures among countries together with activities of intergovernmental environmental initiatives and international organizations have also promoted international cooperation in establishing international environmental laws (Yang and Percival, 2008).

Sources of environmental laws

The origin of environmental laws also traces its roots from religious beliefs and traditional practices. Beliefs among several religions across the world have concepts of environmental conservations. It is for example recorded among the Buddhist religion that “birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou” (Shelton and Kiss, 2005, p. 4).

Buddhist followers further believe that the universe was created for both man and the other living things and man was given authority as guardian. Man, therefore, according to Buddhists, is the protector of the environment to whose the guardianship man was charged. Christians also believe the earth and everything that is found in it belongs to God and not man.

This belief among Christians gives them the duty to protect the universe following the will of their supreme God who charged them to undertake such protection. A similar belief in protecting the universe is also observed among the Muslim faithful. Some particular traditional beliefs have also contributed to the environmental preservation practices that formed the basis of environmental law.

Myths that were held by some communities that the earth and its elements were prone to injury and pain led to the preservation of the environment as some practice that endangers the environment was considered to be taboo. “Traditional laws and norms that guarantee or protect the land and resources” (Shelton and Kiss, 2005, p. 6) were also past practices that contributed to environmental preservations through the then established communal rules (Shelton and Kiss, 2005).

The sources of environmental laws currently involve written sources though some nonwritten sources are recognized in the protection of the environmental natural resources. Most sources of such laws include laws passed by legislative systems of various countries, government agencies, or through international agreements (Shelton and Kiss, 2005).

Moral values have also occasionally led to participation in environmental preservation and conservation by cooperating bodies. Business organizations have in many instances spent a percentage of their revenues to support social activities which “extend to environmental measures” (Hay, Stavins and Vietor, 2005, p. 3).

Moves by factory owners to adopt waste disposal procedures that are safe to the environment are also cases of contributions to traditions of environmental preservation measures. Judicial systems have also proved to be supportive of the cooperate bodies’ move to support environmental conservation processes since courts have prioritized these activities as compared to shareholders’ interests in events of disputes raised by shareholders over their interest in shares and their investment companies’ expenditure in environmental conservation processes.

It has also been further argued that corporate bodies have moral obligations to engage in processes that preserve the environment. The application of corporate social responsibility by business bodies has encouraged, sponsored, and motivated society-based initiatives into developments of environmental conservation and upgrading. Already established laws have also aligned business entities into undertaking and engaging in industrial processes that are friendly to the environment (Hay, Stavins, and Vietor, 2005).

The environmental laws

The effects of globalization led to the integration of country-based regulations on the usage of the environment to yield the currently experienced global regulations over environmental issues. Rules and regulations have for this reason been formulated by international bodies such as multilateral environmental agreements and world trade organization initiatives (Meinhard, 2005).

One of the drivers for the development of environmental laws is the attachment between economics and environmental resources. One of the relationships between the environment and economies is the fact that resources used in economic processes such as the production of commodities are obtained from the environment.

Raw materials such as “minerals, timber, and soil and other energy resources” (Ashford and Caldart, 2008, p. 129) which are primary necessities in the development of products like furniture among others are direct extractions from the environment (Ashford and Caldart, 2008). The environment also helps as an avenue for the disposal of waste materials from economic industrial processes. The environment is also critical to the survival of human beings as it aids the provision of some of the basic needs of human beings.

The environment is for example the primary source of food to a majority of countries, if not all, in the world. Agricultural practices of growing food crops and rearing animals are aided by elements of the environment such as land. Provision of water through rains and underground water is another crucial benefit that is generated from the environment to aid lives and industrial processes. Environmental laws among other elements focus on preventing pollution of the environment (Ashford and Caldart, 2008).

Treaties on environmental law

Treaties are internationally negotiated rules and regulations that are enacted by member countries into their national constitutions. Quite a several treaties have been adopted by countries to jointly oversee the regulation of usage of the environment to ensure its preservation and conservation for future generations is achieved. An example of environmental treaties is the “treaty banning nuclear weapon test in the atmosphere, in outer space and outer water (1963)” (SEDAC, n.d., p. 1).

The treaty was an agreement between the “united states of America, the united kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the union of soviet socialists republics” (SEDAC, n.d., p. 1) and was effected in the year 1963. The subject of the treaty was total disarmament of the member countries concerning nuclear weapons. The treaty was meant to eliminate the competition that existed between the countries over nuclear weapons. In its terms, the treaty established a motive of “discontinuance of all tests explosions of nuclear weapons” (SEDAC, n.d., p. 1) to put an “end to the contamination of man’s environment by radioactive substances” (SEDAC, n.d., p. 1).

The countries that enacted the treaty agreed to refrain from causing environmental pollution through tests of nuclear weapons. The treaty further put a responsibility on its member countries to undertake necessary steps to ensure that no other countries undertake any step that can cause such radioactive pollutions to the environment. Application of the treaty was extended to outer space. The provisions of the treaty have offered protection of the environment from the harmful radiation of nuclear weapons. These radiations are characterized by side effects that destroy cells of living things thus killing the organisms (SEDAC, n.d.)

Several environmental laws have also been agreed upon under multilateral environmental agreements. The agreements are normally made by a group of countries whose numbers vary from one agreement to another. The agreements are also diverse in their specified interests and aims. Agreements have been made on environmental subjects such as “biodiversity and wildlife, protection of the atmosphere, marine environment, chemicals and wastes” (Brack and Gray, 2003, p. 4).

These agreements have established rules and regulations that are meant to safeguard the atmosphere. Other environmental policies are not included in multilateral environmental agreements. These agreements include regional conventions and establishments whose aims are similarly environmental.

Some of these regional agreements include “the 1966 international convention for the conservation of Atlantic Tunas; the 1982 convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources” (Brack and Gray, 2003, p. 5) among others. The significance of economic attachments to environmental issues has been identified and the majority of the agreements have trade measures in their provisions (Brack and Gray, 2003).

An example of multilateral environmental agreements is the Kyoto protocol which is associated with the United Nations initiatives over climate change. The Kyoto protocol was an establishment to reduce the amount of “greenhouse gas emissions” into the atmosphere (UNFCCC, n.d., p. 1). The protocol put the responsibility on its member states that included industrialized countries taking measures of ensuring that the emissions were significantly reduced.

The treaty commits its members to comply with set limits of the greenhouse emission levels that are allowed by provisions of the protocol. Steps to implementation of the protocol include “emissions trading, clean development mechanism and joint implementation” (UNFCCC, n.d., p. 1) together with established systems for reporting and checking on the emission levels of different countries to monitor the success of compliance to the protocol (UNFCCC, n.d.).

The greenhouse gas being controlled by the protocol has the effect of depleting the ozone layer thus exposing the environment to harmful radiations from the outer space (UNFCCC, n.d.).

National legislations have also been significantly enacted to help in conserving environment. In the United States, for example, a number of laws have been enacted that relates to regulation of the use of, and usage that affect the environment. The enactment of the “atomic energy act (1954)” was for example the federal government’s move to monitor and regulate uses of atomic energy and weapons by the country’s department of defense (NRDC, n.d., p. 1).

The act was passed to regulate radiations that are emitted from these atomic materials as well as “the disposal of radioactive waste” (NRDC, n.d., p. 1) which are harmful to human beings and other inhabitants of the environment (NRDC, n.d., p. 1). “Clean air act and clean water act” (NRDC, n.d., p. 1) were also enacted to ensure that standards of purity are maintained over the natural resources.

Many other regulations that pertains to the environment such as “endangered species act (1973), comprehensive environmental response, compensation and liability act (1980)” (NRDC, n.d., p. 1) among others have been enacted and enforced in the United States in order to protect the environment from harmful practices (NRDC, n.d.). Similar legislative actions have also been taken by other countries to save the environment (NRDC, n.d.).

Setbacks on environmental laws

Regardless of the long period of legislations and negotiations into environmental laws, degradation of the environment is still a common phenomenon around the globe. Cases of negative side effects of harmful substances have been reported as well as inefficiency of conventions and treaties in preventing and stopping the degradation of the environment. Effects of harmful pesticides have for example been reported to affect the lives of animals by killing birds and other animal species (Angelo, 2005).


Measure regarding the protection of the environment started with beliefs that were based on religion and traditions of ancient societies. Developments in human knowledge together with alarming degradation of the environment later led to establishment of territorial regulation for environmental preservation. Further, developments then resulted in current national and global environmental laws such as treaties and conventions.


Angelo, M. (2005). . Web.

Ashford, N and Caldart, C. (2008). Environmental law, policy and economics. Massachusetts: MTI Press.

Brack, D and Gray, K. (2003). . Web.

Hay, B., Stavins, R and Vietor, R. (2005). Environmental protection and social responsibility of firms. Washington, DC: Cengage.

Meinhard, D. (2005). From hot air to action? Climate change, compliance and the future of international environmental law. Web.


SCDHEC. (n.d.). A brief history of environmental law. Web.

SEDAC. (n.d.). Environmental treaties and resource indicators (ENTRI). Web.

Shelton, D and Kiss, A. (2005). Judicial handbook on environmental law. Web.

UNFCCC. (n.d.). Kyoto protocol. Web.

Yang, T and Percival, R. (2008). The emergence of global international law. Web.

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