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Principles of Environmental Law

Many of the principles which underpin environmental laws and treaties were laid down formerly at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Although not binding, these principles are designed to guide law-makers and treaty negotiators.

Prior Informed Consent PIC

Prior Informed consent (PIC) is a principle used in the Rotterdam Convention, of 1998.

Download: Rotterdam Convention full text - English (pdf 71 kB)

Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, Rotterdam, 1998. Last meeting 10 May 2013 (Geneva). Also referred to as PIC (Prior Informed Consent).

The Rotterdam Convention seeks to encourage the sharing of information between exporters and importers with regards the labelling, classification, specific handling instructions, and any existing restrictions and bans, of hazardous chemicals.

Signatory nations are entitled to ban the importation of listed chemicals, and exporting countries have an obligation to ensure producers are compliant to the treaty's regulations.

In 2011, Canada unilaterally and controversially blocked the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the list of chemicals subject to Rotterdam restrictions, but finally bowed to pressure and withdrew its opposition in 2012.

Preventive Action

The Principle of Preventive Action requires states to take actions to reduce, limit or control activities which might cause damage to the environment.

Specifically, prevention is where consequences are scientifically certain and actions are taken ahead of the damage occurring. The Principle of Preventive Action relates only to protecting the environment by restricting actions within a state's own jurisdiction.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is defined by the 1987 Brundtland Report as development that 'meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

The principle of sustainable development encapsulates the dual requirement of economic planning not to exceed the capacities of the biosphere to provide resources, and to absorb wastes, while ensuring that overall living standards improve.

In answer to the apparent dichotomy that economic growth necessarily means depletion of resources, the Brundtland Report asserts that 'technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth'. There are four elements to sustainable development: inter-generational equity, sustainable use, equitable use, integration of environment and development.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle states that where there is uncertainty, the risk of irreversible damage to shared natural resources should be avoided by a precautionary approach.

Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration: 'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Article 174(2) EC Treaty: 'Community policy on the environment shall... be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.'

Although there is no common formulation of the principle, there are three basic elements involved: 1. regulatory inaction threatens non-negligible harm, 2. significant scientific uncertainty on cause and effect relationships, 3. as a result, regulatory inaction is unjustified.

Polluter Pays Principle PPP

The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) states that those parties responsible for causing pollution should pay the consequential costs of that pollution.

The costs of pollution are prevention, elimination and remediation of environmental impacts, and should be paid by the person or organisation which caused the impact. The principle extends to prevention of future pollution as well.

Sustainable development describes a transition from a post-industrial economy, characterised by impunity to certain costs which were traditionally externalised. The intangible or real costs to society and the environment are classic examples of externalised costs that the sustainable economy transition seeks to internalise.

The PPP establishes the principle that industries cannot act in a way which undermines the health of people or damages the environment. Or if they do, they should be attempting to find ways to stop doing it, by developing new technologies and eliminating waste. And if they still cannot prevent causing injury and damage, they should at least pay a financial price, so that they are incentivised to seek a better way to manage their business, and compensate their victims.

The end result will be that every actor in every industry views pollution control as intrinsic to maintaining competitiveness, and that socially and environmentally compatible practices are not viewed as they previously have been as an unnecessary extra cost, and to be lobbied against as a threat to profits.

Common but Differentiated Responsibility

The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility acknowledges the difference in responsibilities and capabilities between developed and developing nations.

The principle asserts the common responsibility of all states for environmental protection, under consideration of each state's contribution to the environmental pollution, as well as ability to prevent, reduce or control such pollution.

The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility is a central guideline for the climate change conventions.