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What are environmental laws?

“Environmental law ensures that collective action in relation to environmental problems is authoritative and consistent with the rule of law and other principles of legitimate action.” – Elizabeth Fisher, Environmental Law: A Very Short Introduction

Environmental law is defined as laws that relate to environmental problems. A first step towards understanding what environmental laws are, and how they impact our lives, is to understand the complexities of the environmental problems themselves. These types of problems can be hard to get your head around, as they might require a certain level of scientific knowledge or a detailed understanding of socio-political complexities.

A good place to start is to look at a more personal and limited example, so in the below video we use parking on a public street in a residential neighbourhood to understand the common structure of environmental problems.

We’ve researched some facts about environmental problems and the laws that surround them to help you with some further reading:

  • Discoveries in science play a fundamental role in improving our understanding of environmental problems. We understand more about climate change, pollution in our oceans, and much more now, but studying environmental problems is challenging.
  • There are a diverse range of environmental problems which environmental law attempts to protect against, including deforestation, approximately 129 million hectares of forest (an area roughly the size of South Africa) has been lost since 1990, water scarcity, in 2015 an estimated 2.1 billion people lacked access to safe drinking water, and overfishing, about 34% of global fish stocks have been fished to biologically unsustainable levels.
  • Environmental law not only tries to protect the environment against these repercussions from human development, but it also seeks to promote ‘sustainable development’.
  • In the video we introduced what Garrett Hardin called a ‘tragedy of the commons’, using the problem of parking as an example. Hardin first used this term in a 1968 article in Science and has been used to analyse behaviour in other fields including game theory and development economics.
  • An example of an environmental law that came into effect is the universal agreement on a ban on the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosols. This was achieved in the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but the driving factor was that there were commercially attractive alternatives available. In environmental law it has become easier to agree on the fact that something must be done, but harder to agree on precisely what it is, and when it shall be done, and by whom.

Featured image credit: ‘Sunflower, field, wind turbine, and sky’ by Gustavo Quepón. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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