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Background to Environmental Law

Environmental law is the body of law that seeks to protect or enhance the environment. It is nothing new.

How did it start?

There have been laws aimed at protecting or improving the environment since at least Old Testament times (Deuteronomy 23: 12-13, which concerns sewage disposal).

From such beginnings a wide variety of laws have been developed to protect the environment. Early laws, often focused on the protection of rights associated with the ownership of property could, indirectly, protect the environment. More recent laws have been made to protect the environment itself. Globally, environmental laws apply in many countries and states and grant wide rights (such as the right to a clean and healthy environment which is, for example, part of the Indian Constitution). Environmental laws cover a huge variety of issues from the local (e.g. noise control) to the global (e.g. climate change control).

How does it work in the UK?

In the UK the environment is generally defined to mean air, water and land. The regulatory bodies charged with responsibility for protection of the environment are principally:

  • Environment Agency
  • Natural Resources Wales
  • Scottish Environmental Protection Agency
  • Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland
  • local authorities

Law and Your Environment public information website

Law and Your Environment, is the online guide to Environmental Law, mainly covering England and Wales. Have you got an environmental problem? The kind of problems covered are: fly tipping; noisy neighbours; graffiti; litter; dog mess; pollution; planning; wildlife; rights of way. You can find out where to go for help, who the regulator is and how to approach them, how the legal system works, and follow links to the original laws. The website aims to improve access to environmental law information and empower more people to participate in environmental matters in line with the objectives of the Aarhus Convention 1998. It also promotes a culture of environmental citizenship by providing information on rights and responsibilities.

Law and Your Environment public information website

Some History

In the UK the first systematic attempts to control the polluting effects of the industrial revolution were made by the Alkali Acts in the 19th Century. Later legislation addressed pollution of water and land (see the ill-fated Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act 1972). These laws to control one problem have now become part of complex laws which cover potentially the most polluting industrial activities. In parallel, controls were imposed on the use of land through the planning system.

The role of Europe

Since the UK joined the European Community in 1972 European environmental legislation has increasingly shaped domestic environmental laws. A series of single issue Directives were made but have increasingly been replaced by “framework” and “daughter” directives (e.g. the Waste Framework Directive and the daughter End of Life Vehicles Directive). The framework directives aim to take a more integrated approach to environmental protection. As technology has advanced sometimes new environmental laws have evolved in parallel – e.g. laws on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

International agreements

Some UK environmental laws come from international Conventions and Agreements. International Treaties seek to regulate issues as diverse as Climate Change, International Waste Shipments and Public Access to Justice, Access to Environmental Information and Participation in Environmental Decision Making.

If you are interested in a particular area of environmental law, you may like to join one of our Working Parties that meet to discuss and comment upon developments.

Nothing on this page constitutes legal advice. Specialist legal advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. The contents of this page are for general information purposes only. Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information here is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and we do not accept any liability for error or omission. We shall not be liable for any damage (including, without limitation, damage for loss of business or loss of profits) arising in contract, tort or otherwise from the use of, or inability to use, this page or any material contained in it, or from any action or decision taken as a result of using this site or any such material.
UKELA will endeavour to update the page regularly but you should check that any information is still in date.

This page was printed from the website of the UK Environmental Law Association at www.ukela.org.
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