General Principles and Philosophies of Environmental Law

There are not “laws” as such, but general trends in environmental policy for business, guidance by industry regulators, change fueled by expectations from customers, or agreements between governments or good practice that are not legally binding but for the common good. They concern many aspects not already covered in previous sections.

Accountability and Transparency: The need for transparency towards the public and stakeholders from those responsible is a growing expectation in the need to mitigate and treat environmental damage. We expect it from government and industry towards the populations who will be affected by it. UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) states the need for protection of human rights on opinions and to seek and impart ideas. There is also a right of access to information in an appropriate manner and time from governments holding data that might concern the public over any aspect of environmental protection without making it prohibitively expensive to do so. There should also be effective judicial and proceedings against polluters and those responsible.

Cross-border responsibility: This is an international law obligation also set down by UNEP. It is defined as the obligation of governments to protect the environment within their borders and to do what it takes to prevent a nation’s activities from causing damaging to neighboring nations. It is seen as a potential limitation on the rights of sovereign states and therefore treated as a human rights issue.

Equity and Equality: This is not about gender, sexuality, or race equality when it comes to environmental protection, but for the right of succeeding generations to enjoy the same or better benefits than the generations that preceded it, according to UNEP. The biggest issues of the age include climate change and resource depletion, an issue that will affect coming generations as previous generations add to the depletion and environmental damage. It determines the responsibility of previous generations to the future. Naturally, this concerns not just resource control, but also pollution mitigation.

Polluter Pays: Tied to responsibility and accountability, it is the core belief that those who cause damage should be responsible for the cleanup rather than expecting the public or others to do so such as taxpayer dollars. Environmental remediation is a necessary area of environmental protection and it is on this basis that such roles exist within organizations.

Precautionary Principle: Often a hot topic and subject to furious debate, this international standard promotes the concept through The Rio Declaration that to protect an environment, a precautionary approach must be applied according to their capability. When there is a threat of damage, governments must not muddy the waters or use scientific uncertainty (either real or imagined) to abdicate responsibility or to procrastinate over an issue.

Prevention: “Prevention is better than cure” is a mantra in many areas and it’s certainly true of ecology and environmental protection. It looks at ways of pushing the need for analyzing potential harms in such processes as risk assessment and puts in place measures for preventing incidents, accidents and worst case scenarios. The cost of prevention (financial or otherwise) is always better than the long-term harm and massive expense necessary with a cleanup, for example.

Sustainable Development: This legal term described as thus: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and tied to the generational equity and equality principle. Interdependence, integration, legal requirement of environmental impact are all key pillars of the idea. It came into force in 1972 although it’s only become prominent recently. In 1983, the UN declared that the right to develop should apply equally to present as well as future generations.