Initially, laws were focused on the protection of rights associated with property and land ownership, which only protected the environment indirectly. More recent laws have been made specifically to avoid environmental harm, and are now evolving to the management of resources. Environmental laws are set at international level, country-level as well as locally, and apply to a wide range of issues from waste, land, air and water pollution to more recent issues such as the use of genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology.
Environmental legislation commonly comes from national legislative and executive branches of government. For example, in the UK, statutory law is made by Parliament situated in England and also the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as individual government departments.
The purpose of environmental law is to protect or enhance the environment and thus help to achieve an important element of sustainability. This requires individuals and organisations to take responsibility for their activities. This is achieved by:
- setting environmental limits;
- requiring controls to be in place;
- imposing levies on activities that cause environmental harm;
- requiring reporting and monitoring;
- using enforcement mechanisms, such as criminal and civil sanctions, so that consequences are in place if environmental harm is caused;
- requiring those responsible for harm to pay for the clean-up costs and/or provide recourse to those affected.