The environment and the natural resources it provides are critical to our survival. Unfortunately, many people and organizations don’t care about that and only seek to maximize their profits – even if that harms the environment in the process. Luckily, environmental law exists to put a stop to it. So, what is the importance of environmental law?
Environmental law protects the planet’s natural resources, including air, water, land, and soil, that are critical to human health and allows the government to punish those who treat the environment poorly.
Keep reading to learn more about the importance of environmental law, the history of environmental legislation, the types of environmental law, what environmental lawyers do, and the best environmental law schools to date.
What Is Environmental Law, and Why Is It Important?
Environmental law is a collection of laws, regulations, and agreements regarding various environmental issues, including:
- Waste management: involves managing radioactive waste and building or upgrading waste management systems to prevent groundwater pollution or the spread of disease.
- Food production: regulations are made surrounding how produce is grown and harvested and what kinds of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used. Environmental law also investigates the processing, packaging, and storage of these goods to ensure all goods are safe for human consumption.
- Water reserves: ensuring a clean water supply for communities, suitable irrigation for agriculture, and proper drainage systems to prevent standing water and the health concerns associated with it.
- Pollution control and remediation: controlling pollution caused by human activity as well as the conservation of natural resources.
- Flora and fauna: protecting biodiversity by implementing laws that prevent endangered species of plants and wildlife from being hunted or harvested.
- Mining: mining for natural resources releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Environmental law investigates the environmental impact and makes regulations accordingly.
- Emissions and construction: investigates the quality of public transportation in regards to human health and the environment.
The environment and the natural resources it provides us are critical to the wellbeing of humanity. Without environmental laws in place, there would be no control over how people use these precious natural resources – which could jeopardize the environment and, ultimately, human health.
Environmental law allows the government to punish those who treat the environment poorly – those who fail to comply with environmental law may face community service, fines, or jail time.
The History of Environmental Law
A majority of environmental laws were passed between 1960 and 1980. Before then, environmental legislation primarily focused on resource conservation, and the federal government encouraged states to adopt their own control measures, putting the responsibility on the state and local governments to take care of environmental problems. The Water Quality Act was passed in 1948, along with the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that we would see the rise of the modern environmental movement that placed responsibility on industries instead of the government. The public began to grow more concerned over the environmental impacts of human activity, thanks to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 – which highlighted the severe environmental impacts caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. As a result, the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1963, followed by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That same year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, which combined 15 federal programs from other agencies into one entity. The 1970s are known today as “the Environmental Decade,” where legislation was passed that ultimately changed how environmental decisions are made.
This legislation put pressure on agencies to consider the consequences of their actions and prohibited actions that could harm endangered species or the environment.
What Are the Types of Environmental Law?
Environmental laws can cover various topics, including air quality, water quality, waste management, environmental contamination / contaminant cleanup, chemical safety, hunting, and fishing. The main types of environmental law include command-and-control legislation, environmental assessment mandates, economic incentives, and set-aside schemes.
To better understand what these mean, let’s take a closer look at each type of environmental law and what it entails.
Most of what we know to be environmental law falls into the category of command-and-control legislation. These laws usually consist of three factors:
- Identification of an activity that is harmful to the environment.
- Imposition of specific conditions or standards on that activity.
- Prohibition of forms of the activity that fail to comply with the imposed requirements or criteria.
Environmental Assessment Mandates
Environmental assessment mandates are designed to investigate the potential environmental consequences of plan, project, policy, or program and typically involve three steps:
- Identifying a level of potential environmental impact of a proposed action and determining whether it is significant enough to require an assessment.
- Establish specific goals or objectives for the required assessment.
- Set requirements to ensure that the assessment will be used to determine whether or not to proceed with the action as initially contemplated. If the risk is too high, an alternative action should be pursued.
Another form of environmental law is when the government offers incentives to promote environmental protection. Examples of environmental economic incentives include:
- Pollution taxes. Many countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, are now imposing taxes on carbon dioxide emissions. The EU (European Union) has considered implementing carbon dioxide emissions taxes as well.
- Subsidies for clean technologies and practices. These seek to combat the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation caused by the use of fossil fuels. Most states offer financial incentives to support or subsidize renewable energy and sustainable development.
- Market-based environmental policy. Consumers pay a price for a product that includes a specific amount of money to cover the environmental effects of said product.
Set-aside schemes are where the government sets lands and waters to be protected in their natural state. For example, in the United States, a large majority of the land owned by the federal government can be developed only with the approval of a federal agency.
Major Federal Laws
Several federal environmental laws have been put into place to protect the environment and our natural sources. Some of these include:
- The River and Harbors Act (1889): the first federal environmental law, the River and Harbors Act, made it illegal to dump waste into navigable waterways without permission.
- The Endangered Species Act (1973): protections are put into place to prevent the extinction of endangered species.
- The Clean Air Act (1970): Ensures healthy air quality by regulating air emissions from stationary and mobile sources.
- The Clean Water Act (1972): protects water by governing the discharge of pollutants into US waters.
There are also state environmental regulations that can vary between states, such as regulations on hunting and fishing. Within each state is an agency that manages and regulates the natural resources of that state, and each state also usually has an agency that governs environmental quality.
What Do Environmental Lawyers Do?
Environmental lawyers represent their clients in legal issues involving the environment, such as clean technology, water law, climate change law, and land management subject to native title and other public lands.
Typically the day to day duties of an environmental lawyer include:
- Meeting with clients.
- Researching environmental legal developments.
- Drafting documents and educating the public about environmental law.
What Are the Best Environmental Law Schools?
If you’re interested in becoming an environmental lawyer, there is a vast selection of excellent environmental law schools to choose from:
- Lewis and Clark College
- Pace University (Haub)
- University of California – Berkeley
- New York University
- University of California – Los Angeles
- Vermont Law School
- Columbia University
- Georgetown University
- Harvard University
- George Washington University
- Stanford University
- University of Colorado – Boulder
- University of Oregon
- University of Utah (Quinney)
Final Thoughts – The Importance of Environmental Law
Environmental law is undoubtedly a critical component of society and the wellbeing of our planet. Protecting the environment continues to be a growing priority across the world, so there’s no question that the demand for environmental lawyers will increase as well.
Madeline is a passionate Environmental, Health, and Lifestyle Writer dedicated to educating and inspiring the public to take action and leave Earth a better place than when we found it. She holds a BS in Environmental Science with a technique in Environmental Writing and Communication.
When Madeline isn’t writing, you can find her recharging in nature, drinking coffee, and hanging out with her two cats.