The nature of global environment protection
Environmental protection law attempts to regulate competing interests in the use and management of the environment. This area of the law has largely developed only in recent decades.
The main Australian statute on environmental protection is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). It contains a broad definition of ‘environment,’ including ecosystems and their constituent parts, natural and physical resources, qualities and heritage values of places, and social, economic and cultural aspects of these things.
Ecologically sustainable development (ESD) refers to ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland Report, 1987). Obligations regarding ESD were central to the Rio Conference in 1992, which elaborated upon the principle to include four pillars: biodiversity, intergenerational equity, intragenerational equity and the precautionary principle.
Responses to Global Environmental Protection
The development of international conferences on the environment, particularly the regular mega conferences or summits that commenced in Stockholm in 1972, together with the negotiation of numerous multilateral treaties on environmental issues, reflects the growing recognition of governments of the need for global environmental protection.
Increasing consumption and development worldwide, due partially to the effects of globalisation, has also increased the impact on the environment. One of the difficulties is in convincing governments that the long-term needs of the environment may outweigh individual countries’ short-term economic and political interests.
The UN has established several programs and specialised agencies to deal with environmental issues, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme(UNEP). The UN also oversees the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reviews and assesses the most recent scientific information relating to climate change.
International instruments have been central to the development of global environmental protection. There are two main types: ‘soft law,’ which includes international declarations that apply only moral or political pressure on governments, and ‘hard law’, which includes international agreements like treaties and conventions that apply legally binding obligations on states.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has heard some environmental cases, such as the nuclear test cases of 1974 to 1975 involving Australia and New Zealand against France. However, some argue that a more powerful international forum is needed.