International environmental law is concerned with the attempt to control pollution and the depletion of natural resources within a framework of sustainable development. International environmental law covers topics such as population, biodiversity, climate change, ozone depletion, toxic and hazardous substances, air, land, sea and transboundary water pollution, conservation of marine resources, desertification, and nuclear damage.


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.

Librarian’s choice
Boyle, A. and Redgwell, C., Birnie, Boyle, & Redgwell's International Law and the Environment, Fourth edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021.
Birnie, Boyle, and Redgwell's International Law and the Environment places legislation on the protection of the environment firmly at the core of its argument. It uses sharp and thorough analysis of the law, sharing knowledge and experience.
Rudall, J., Compensation for Environmental Damage under International Law, 2020
Inspired by recent litigation, this book identifies and critically appraises the manifold and varied approaches to calculating compensation for damage caused to the environment. It examines a wide range of practice on compensation – in general and specifically for environmental damage – from that
Selective bibliography

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)
● 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

Two major declarations on international environmental law are:

  • The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the 1972 Stockholm Declaration) (UN Doc. A/CONF/48/14/REV.1 (1972). This declaration represented a first major attempt at considering the global human impact on the environment, and an international attempt to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment. The Stockholm Declaration espouses mostly broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions. The UN website provides introductory information, procedural history and preparatory documents associated with the Declaration, as well as the full text of the Declaration.
  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development  (UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26 (vol. I))  was a short document produced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the Rio Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration consists of 27 principles intended to guide future sustainable development around the world

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

Periodicals, serial publications