1. Environmental Laws in General
Environmental laws are the standards that governments establish to manage natural
resources and environmental quality. The broad categories of “natural resources” and “environmental quality” include such areas as air and water pollution, forests and wildlife, hazardous waste, agricultural practices, wetlands, and landuse planning. In the United States, some of the more widely known environmental laws are the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The body of environmental law includes not only the text of these laws but also the regulations that implement and the judicial
decisions that interpret this legislation.
In general, the standards set forth in environmental laws can apply to either private parties or
the government. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, for example, are frequently used to regulate
the polluting activities of private enterprises.These laws mandate certain pollution-reducing
technology or limit the levels of pollution for power plants and factories. The National
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) applies only to the actions of the U.S. government. NEPA
requires that the federal government undertake a comprehensive environmental impact assessment before it can proceed with projects that are likely to harm the environment.
2. Distinguishing National Law fromInternational Law
To understand the nature of international environmental law, one must first understand the
difference between national and international law.National law is law that is adopted by the government of an individual country.
In the United States, the most common examples of national law are federal and state legislation and judicial decisions. Agency regulations and executive orders would also fall within this category.Although these national laws are adopted by an individual country, they may have international impacts. A foreign manufacturer whose defective product injures a person living in the United States may be held liable for resulting damages under U.S. law. The U.S. Corrupt Practices Act prevents a U.S. corporate executive from bribing a foreign government official. While these laws affect international activities and non-national parties, they are generally not considered international law. Rather, they are considered extraterritorial applications of national law.
International law, on the other hand, concerns agreements among different nations, or between
citizens or corporations of different nations.Agreements or treaties among different nations are
generally referred to as public international law.Contracts between private parties (corporations or citizens) residing in different nations are generally referred to as private international law. Because the field of international environmental law focuses on the relations and agreements among nations, it is part of public international law.
3. Distinguishing between Hard and Soft
A distinction is often made between hard and soft international law. Hard international law
generally refers to agreements or principles that are directly enforceable by a national or international body. Soft international law refers to agreements or principles that are meant to influence individual nations to respect certain norms or incorporate them into national law. Soft international law by itself is not enforceable.