Environmental law is a complex body of law made up of global, international, national, state and local statutes, treaties, conventions, regulations and policies which seek to protect the environment affected, impacted or endangered by human activities. The most important issue at this moment is climate change. Countries have recognized that climate change presents an ever growing threat to development, poverty eradication efforts, security and the welfare of their citizens. Many political and military leaders around the world are now calling climate change the most serious threat to national security in the 21st century. Climate change has been called "perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction". From 30 November to 12 December, Paris hosted the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 11). On 12 December, the parties reached a new global agreement on climate change. The agreement presents a balanced outcome with an action plan to limit global warming 'well below' 2°C.

The main elements of the Paris agreement:

1. Long-term goal: governments agreed to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C;

2. Contributions: before and during the Paris conference countries submitted comprehensive national climate action plans to reduce their emissions;

3. Ambition: governments agreed to communicate every 5 years their contributions to set more ambitious targets;

4. Transparency: they also accepted to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets, to ensure transparency and oversight;

5. Solidarity: the EU and other developed countries will continue to provide climate finance to assist developing countries both to reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts.

This Research Guide is intended as a starting point for research in the field of International Environmental Law. It provides the basic legal materials available in the Peace Palace Library, both in print and electronic format. Handbooks, leading articles, bibliographies, periodicals, serial publications and documents of interest are presented in the Selective Bibliography section. Links to the PPL Catalogue are inserted. The Library's subject heading (keyword) International Environmental Law is instrumental for searching through the Catalogue. Special attention is given to our subscriptions on databases, e-journals, e-books and other electronic resources. Finally, this Research Guide features links to relevant websites and other online resources of particular interest.


Sources of international law


International environmental law treaties encompasses a diverse group of topics, including:
● climate change: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (New York, 9 May 1992)Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto, 11 December 1997)Paris Agreement (Paris, 4 November 2016), Glasgow Climate Pact (Glasgow, 13 November, 2021).
● sustainable development: Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
● biodiversity: Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio de Janeiro, 5 June 1992)
● transfrontier pollution:Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Geneva, 13 November 1979) 
● marine pollution:  Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter
● endangered species:  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
● hazardous materials and activities: Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel, 22 March 1989)
● cultural preservation: Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural & Natural Heritage
● desertification: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
● uses of the seas: United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

A full list of international environmental law treaties can be found on Wikipedia. This is arranged alphabetically and also by subject.

The full text of all international environmental law treaties can be found on ECOLEX , a free online gateway to environmental law treaties; and

Treaties generally concern one of the following broad subjects:  toxic and hazardous substances, nuclear damage, ocean and marine sources, ozone and protection of the atmosphere, pollution, biodiversity and the protection and conservation of species and wildlife, sustainable development, and trade and the environment. The Globalex Guide on International Environmental Legal Research provides a useful table of these subjects together with links to the agreements and relevant agencies.

Many of the major treaties have their own websites, containing convention documentation such as backgrounds to the conventions, draft articles and travaux preparatoires, convention protocols and national reports. The UN Audiovisual Library of International Law website lists the major international law treaties, and provides the full text of the treaties and travaux, together with useful introductory summaries.

UN Declarations and Resolutions

The resolutions and decisions of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council may provide valuable information on environmental issues. Although they cannot themselves constitute international law or serve as conclusive evidence of a rule of customary law, such resolutions do have value in providing evidence of existing or emerging law. This point of view has been acknowledged by the International Law Commission.

As every Member State has been recognized and has a vote in the UN General Assembly, finding General Assembly resolutions that passed unanimously or near-unanimously may serve as an excellent starting point in the legal research process. Pay attention to the language of the resolution. Those with firm obligations versus those that are merely aspirational or advisory in nature are more likely to be considered valuable as evidence of customary international law.

 Official Document System Search. ODS is the UN's Official Document System. You can search for UN declarations, resolutions and other documents by keywords, then narrow your search.

 Start Your Research: (7) Resolutions and Decisions of International Organizations.

Case law

There is no international court for the environment. Environmental disputes have been litigated before a wide range of adjudicative bodies - global and regional, judicial and arbitral. Many multilateral environmental regimes have 'non-compliance procedures' which are typically non-judicial.

Disputes between States concerning international environmental law can be heard in the International Court of Justice (provided the dispute is between States that have declared that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has compulsory jurisdiction). The ICJ is a court of general jurisdiction that provides Advisory Opinions and decides contententious cases. Full text ICJ international environmental law decisions can be found on ECOLEX (open access). Inter-State litigation is based on the remedial principle of 'State Responsibility' or international tort law. The ICJ is only able to determine disputes between States: individuals and other non-state actors are not able to be parties to a dispute.

Environmental protection disputes between States and non-state actors such as individuals, communities and corporations can also be heard in international human rights courts such as the European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights. International environmental law decisions from human rights courts are available on ECOLEX.

Reference works

Selected books and articles

For all peer-reviewed articles in the PPL Catalogue, click here.

Periodicals, serial publications