What Is Environmental Law?

Environmental laws protect the health and safety of humans and the environment by regulating emissions, controlling hazardous waste disposal, and promoting sustainable practices. These laws also protect individual rights, such as the right to a clean and healthy environment.


Environmental law involves many different aspects, including lawsuits, lobbying, grassroots organizing, and other strategies. Practicing environmental law can be a rewarding career for those who are passionate about protecting the environment.

Public Participation

Public participation is a key facet of environmental law, with governments often required to involve the public in processes to analyze and assess impacts and alternatives for particular projects. This public involvement can also take place at the political level, with citizens taking part in parades and protests to support environmental protection or to advocate for more aggressive climate change mitigation measures.

In addition to consultation, both the Netherlands and the US create nonmandatory legal pathways for agencies to pursue more active forms of collaboration with the public down the IAPP spectrum. These pathways include use of the negotiated rulemaking process in the US and experimentation with the public participation protocol in the Netherlands.

Unlike the Netherlands, however, US laws more frequently and explicitly empower the public to directly direct environmental decision making to particular ends or new topics. This direct empowerment stems from the legal right of members of the public to petition administrative agencies and from APA judicial review. The legal rights of NGOs and citizens to initiate environmental citizen suits have proven instrumental in jumpstarting climate change regulation in the US (Babich, 1995). It is not yet clear how Dutch law will evolve to match these trends.

Environmental Regulation

Environmental regulation establishes legal standards for protection and improvement of the environment. This is accomplished through a variety of means, such as requiring disclosure of toxic waste disposal methods or prohibiting the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters. It also may include establishing programs to clean up already polluted areas and assigning liability for such cleanups, as well as mandating that industrial firms use best practices to prevent pollution in the first place.

Many of these laws are enforced at the state level, as the United States has a system of cooperative federalism in which the national government sets general standards and leaves enforcement to the individual states. In such cases, state law may supersede federal regulations.

These laws often require governments and industrial firms to conduct environmental impact assessments before taking any action that may significantly affect the environment, as well as to make comprehensible information available to the public. They also typically rely on the polluter-pays principle, which holds that those who cause environmental damage should pay for cleaning up the pollution caused.

Environmental Justice

Environmental law encompasses a broad range of topics, from air quality laws to chemical safety and protection of endangered species. But at the core of all environmental policies is the need to ensure that all people enjoy equal access to a clean environment in which to live, work and play.

For example, it’s often the case that communities of color and low-income neighborhoods bear a greater burden of environmental hazards than wealthier white communities. This may be because they are more likely to live near contaminated waste sites or be exposed to toxic chemicals from local businesses. And they may be less likely to receive help with cleaning up those sites or to find out about potential health risks from nearby facilities.

Environmental justice seeks to address these inequities by ensuring that all communities have the opportunity to participate fully in environmental decisions and receive equal access to environmental benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity. This is a key goal of the ABA Section on Environment, Energy and Resources’ Environmental Justice Initiative.

International Agreements

International environmental law consists of a wide range of treaties and agreements that balance the planet’s ecological limits with its ever-growing economy to prevent irreversible damage. These include the global agreements aimed at preventing climate change and ozone depletion, conserving wildlife and the oceans and marine environment, and regulating the global movement of chemicals and wastes.

Many of these treaties have specific compliance control mechanisms to ensure that the signatories actually adhere to their contractual obligations. For example, the Protocol to the Montreal Convention requires countries to report their ozone-depleting gas production and consumption. This allows researchers to determine whether the countries are complying with their contractual obligations.

The most significant obstacle to all forms of international environmental law is the principle of sovereign immunity, which maintains that each nation has complete control over its own activities within its borders unless it relinquishes some portion of sovereignty through bilateral or multilateral treaties. In addition, some countries may lack the motivation to adopt international environmental protocols if they will create economic difficulties or harm their own citizens.

Environmental Lawyers

Environmental attorneys work to ensure that the environment is protected and that businesses follow government regulations. They have many duties, including performing investigations and conducting research, writing reports, and preparing for hearings. They may also negotiate and draft legislation. They can work at the EPA and other agencies, or they can provide legal advice to businesses or individuals.

As sustainability becomes a more common practice, environmental lawyers are increasingly sought after. These attorneys advise on green initiatives, sustainability strategies, and alternative energy sources. They can also be found working to protect species, natural resources, and the water supply.

Environmental justice advocates help low-income communities fight pollution and resource extraction hazards. They also represent victims of environmental injuries. Climate change lawyers work to promote technological innovations that can reduce carbon emissions, while ensuring the Earth remains a habitable abode for future generations. Energy law attorneys develop and enforce energy regulation policies for renewable, sustainable energy sources, as well as conventional fossil fuels. They can also act as in-house counsel for private energy companies. Environmental law is a complex field, and hiring a qualified attorney is essential.