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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: April 2013

14 - Protecting the environment

from Part II - The substance of international law


One of the more debated fields of international law in recent decades is generally considered to be a fairly novel branch of the law: the international legal protection of the environment. Among the reasons why this is hotly debated is that agreement between states is sometimes hard to find; there exist strong political cleavages not only over the extent to which the global environment is under threat, but also over what to do about it and, eventually, about who should pay for it. In a nutshell, developed industrialized nations, whose industrialization and lifestyle has done much to help degrade the environment, are reluctant to mend their ways; less developed nations tend to think that if others could benefit from industrialization, then so should they, regardless of the consequences. And if much degradation has been caused by those others, it only seems fair that they, who became rich on the back of the degradation, should foot most of the bill. Partly as a result, much of international environmental law consists of fragile compromises.

There is another factor which makes it difficult to achieve a coherent and effective body of international environmental law, and that is the circumstance that while international law is typically made between and for states, states themselves are rarely the direct culprits when it comes to pollution and degradation. Instead, many of the world's environmental problems are caused by the activities of companies and individuals. Typically, dumping toxic waste into rivers, or letting oil spill from oil drilling platforms, are not directly attributable to states. Likewise, the emissions of millions of cars and airplanes are not the work of states, but of individuals keen on moving comfortably from place A to place B. While government officials may be implicated in various ways (from designing inadequate legislation, to planning shopping malls in suburban areas in such a way that they are only accessible by car), none the less the behaviour that needs to be affected by international environmental law is predominantly the behaviour of individuals and companies.

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International Law
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