Little-Known Guiding Principles of Environmental Law

Environmental Law

This article describes the general principles and rules of international environmental law that have emerged from International treaties, agreements, and customs.

The significance of the generality of these principles is that they can be applied to the international community to protect the environment.

Environmental Law under traditional views derives from one of four sources:

  • International Conventions;
  • International Customs;
  • General Principles of Law recognised by civilised nations;
  • and judicial decisions.

You might have already been referring to some of these principles unknowingly. 

Sovereignty And Responsibility

International environmental law has developed between two contradicting principles.

 First, states have sovereign rights over their natural resources.

 Second, states should not cause damage to the environment.

Although the concept of a state’s sovereignty over its natural resources is rooted in the old principle of territorial sovereignty, the United Nations General  Assembly has further encouraged it by declaring, among other things, that the right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural resources and wealth must be exercised in the interest of their national development, and of the well-being of the people of the state.

The Public Trust Doctrine

This environmental law recognises that the State is a trustee of all-natural resources, the enjoyment of which is subject to a measure of control necessary to protect the legitimate interest of all sections and stakeholders in the larger framework of strategic national interests.

The Duty To Compensate For Harm

States are responsible for ensuring that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or areas beyond the limits of their national jurisdiction. Injuries result from violations of this generally accepted rule.

Any state responsible for a violation of international law has to stop the wrongful conduct and re-establish the condition that existed prior to the illegal
conduct. If it is impossible to re-establish the pre-existing condition, the state should provide compensation.

Environmental Right

environmental law

This environmental law ensures that every Citizen has a right to a clean and healthy environment and a duty to safeguard and enhance the environment.

Environmental Offsetting

This environmental law requires that where for exceptional reasons of overriding public interest, the general obligation to protect threatened or endangered species and natural systems that are of particular importance to sustaining life, providing livelihoods, or general well-being cannot be provided, such cost-effective offsetting measures must be undertaken by the proponents of activity to restore as nearly as may be feasible the lost environmental services to the community.

The Polluter Pays Principle

This principle prescribes that the polluter should bear the cost of preventing and remediating pollution.

The User Pays Principle

This principle directs that the cost of a resource to a user must include all the environmental costs associated with its extraction, transformation and use (including the costs of alternative or future benefits forgone).

The Precautionary Principle

This principle holds that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, the lack of full scientific knowledge shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective means to prevent environmental degradation.

Although still evolving, this rule is reflected in principle fifteen of the Rio Declaration, which states that where there are warnings of severe or irreversible damage, lack of complete scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental pollution degradation.

The Subsidiarity Principle

This reflects the preference for making decisions at the lowest level of government or social organisation where the issue can be effectively managed – decisions made at the local level are often viewed as more likely to take account of local environmental conditions and the opinions of the local people who often bear the highest ecological costs of development.

Pollution Prevention Pays Principle

This environmental law encourages Industries to invest positively to prevent pollution.

Also read: What if Fishes go Extinct

Principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility

The protection of the environment is a common challenge in all countries. Due to different development paths and the need to share in the responsibility for ecological degradation, some countries may be asked to carry more of the conservation burden.

The idea is that states should comply with international obligations for the conservation of the environment on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities. This principle was acknowledged in the Rio Declaration in principles four and seven.

The Principle of Sustainable Development

environmental law

The principle of sustainable development was defined by the 1987 Brundtland Report’ as a development that meets the needs (in particular the essentials of the world’s poor) of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It imposes the idea of limitations on the environment’s capacity to meet present and futures needs.”

As reflected in international agreements, sustainable development encompasses at least three elements: Intergenerational Equity, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, and Integration of environment and development.

The Principle of Participation

This environmental law requires that decisions should, as much as possible, be made by the people or on their behalf by representatives chosen by them.

International Cooperation

This requires the country to domesticate Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and Regional instruments and implement them cooperatively for better environmental management of shared resources.

In this regard, the country will take cognisance of all relevant international agreements on the environment and mainstream them in the protection of the environment;

Good Environmental Governance

This requires that the rule of law, effective institutions, transparency and accountability, respect for human rights, and citizens’ meaningful participation will be integrated into environmental management.

Integrated Ecosystem Approach

In conserving Environmental Resources, this approach is adopted and enhanced to ensure that all the country’s ecosystems are managed for sustainable development and the benefit of the people.

The Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO)

The Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO) is a set of procedures adopted by Great Britain with the goal of managing waste and other environmental concerns.

According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, BPEO emphasises protecting and conserving the environment across the land, air, and water.

The BPEO procedure establishes the option that provides the most benefits or the least damage to the environment for a given set of objectives.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

environmental law

In waste management, extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a strategy designed to promote the integration of environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles into the market price of the products.

Extended producer responsibility legislation is a driving force behind the adoption of remanufacturing initiatives as it “focuses on the end-of-use treatment of consumer products and has the primary aim to increase the amount and degree of product recovery and minimise the environmental impact of waste materials.”


The legal meaning and consequences of the above-stated principles remain open. Some have evolved over a short period of time and sometimes in different contexts.

The influence of international litigation should not be underestimated.

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