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Module Introduction

  Page contents:   About this module  |  Structure  |  Module aims and learning outcomes  |  Assessment   |  Study Materials


What this Module is About

This module looks at the principles and rules of international law which have as their primary objective the protection of the environment. The module addresses how the international community has recognised and sought to deal with the interdependence of the global environment, from early bilateral arrangements dealing principally with local transboundary pollution to more recent regional and international agreements.

Multilateral approaches to environmental problems have had to attempt to reconcile state sovereignty with the placing of limits on the rights of states and other members of the international community to carry out or permit environmentally damaging activities, as well as the interplay between environmental protection objectives and the economic and developmental needs of states. The need for institutions, laws and agreements that can appropriately and fairly guide the trade-offs that may be needed between economic activity and environmental protection is a recurrent theme and issue in the module. This comes to the fore in relation to a wide range of natural resources, not least when concerned with international agreements that also seek to regulate international trade.

The module outlines the international legal processes through which international environmental issues are addressed, the principles which underlie or guide the action taken, the substance of the principles and rules relating to environmental problems generally, including the principle of sustainable development, and various techniques for implementing these principles and rules. It considers how successfully the international legal instruments and processes under consideration achieve their objectives and how they might be improved.

In summary, in addition to providing a general introduction to the wide and dynamic field of international environmental law, the module seeks to address the key contemporary issues of our planet - climate change and overexploitation of natural resources - their causes, sometimes catastrophic effects and potential legal solutions.

It is important to remember that a single module of this kind can only cover part of a large and sometimes controversial subject area: inevitably it has to be selective. We decided to emphasise the principles and practice of international environmental law, without overloading students with details of case law and precedents. We seek to focus on processes, principles and rules which have global applicability and, in general, reference is not made to legal sources on regional environmental law because this would be overwhelming in volume and diversity. However, significant regional developments in environmental law are referred to in some units, particularly where this provides an illustrative model or other form of precedent. The aim is to capture the salient regional developments in environmental law that inform global practice, without getting lost in the dynamics and detail of domestic environmental law in different states.

This module is aimed at environmental management practitioners - from private business, government departments, international development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - who work in the formulation, delivery and management of environmental policies, programmes and projects. You may be involved directly with national and international environmental law in one way or another. Even if not directly involved, you are likely to have contact with lawyers and need to know something of how they work and of the international legal framework within which you work. The emphasis we have selected does not mean that you can become an expert in international environmental law simply by doing this module alone, although it does aim to provide a solid initial basis for the appreciation of legal principles and practice and to make you an effective member of professional teams.



Structure of the Module

This module is broadly divided into two parts. Units 1-4 explain the legal and institutional framework in which international environmental law has developed and is applied. They consider the process by which international environmental law develops, and the principles which underlie it, including the concept of sustainable development. This part of the module also provides the main tools which you will need in order to understand the development, application and limitations of international environmental law.

Units 5-10 then review some substantive areas of environmental protection and consider what rules and principles of international law have developed to address these. In each case, relevant treaties are examined in some detail. Specifically, Units 5-9 cover the atmosphere, the seas, fresh water resources, waste and hazardous substances including nuclear energy, and conservation of biodiversity. Unit 10 concludes the module by considering how international environmental law affects, and is affected by, the international trade mechanism, and the importance of technology transfer and intellectual property rights. Whilst considering each of these areas in an isolated, serial manner, you should aim to ensure that any links between the different subject areas of international environmental law are noted, and also refer back to the principles and approaches to international law covered in Units 1-4.



What you will Learn

Module Aims

Module Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, students should be able to:




This module is assessed by:

Since the EA is an element of the formal examination process, please note the following:

  1. The EA questions and submission date will be available on the Online Learning Environment.
  2. The EA is submitted by uploading it to the Online Learning Environment.
  3. The EA is marked by the module tutor and students will receive a percentage mark and feedback.
  4. Answers submitted must be entirely the student’s own work and not a product of collaboration. For this reason, the Online Learning Environment is not an appropriate forum for queries about the EA.
  5. Plagiarism is a breach of regulations. To ensure compliance with the specific University of London regulations, all students are advised to read the guidelines on referencing the work of other people. For more detailed information, see the User Resource Section of the Online Learning Environment.



Study Materials

There is one key text supplied with this module.

Birnie P, Boyle A, Redgwell C (2009) International Law and the Environment, 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

This book is a leading treatise on international environmental law and a standard textbook for its study.Itstudy. It provides a clear and comprehensive exposition of the fundamental principles and practice of the subject.Thissubject. This is the main text for your study and you should expect to consult it thoroughly during the study year and with reference to each unit. Written in a very accessible style, the book comprehensively covers the range of issues, related treaties, and other material relevant to the aims of this module. Written by three of the foremost experts in this field, the book places legislation on the protection of the environment firmly at its core while remaining based within the detail of substantive law and relevant to current context. Contemporary content includes extended treatment of Genetically Modified Organisms and biotechnology, as well as the implications of ethics and the environment. It also features the role of the International Maritime Organization and non-governmental organisations, and their growing influence over legislative provisions.

For each of the ten units, Key Readings are provided. These key readings are drawn from a wide range of sources including your textbooks, journals and the internet. They are authored by individual researchers and analysts, and also through the collective efforts of diverse national and international organisations. They have been selected to provide a range of perspectives and more depth on the unit subject matter.

A number of Further Readings and References are also listed. These texts and articles are not provided but are available on the internet. All references cited in the unit text are also listed here. Students are not expected to follow up each and every further reading for the purposes of the examination, but can follow up specific points of interest that support your own learning and application to your own professional work.

The legal instruments referred to in the unit text are referenced chronologically at the beginning of each unit under the Treaties, Instruments and Cases listing. You are not expected to study original legal instruments in detail, however, it is of value that you peruse a sample of these and seek to improve your understanding of key principles and processes from the style, structure, terminology and substantive content of such texts. To this end, a number of important examples have been included in your e-study guide as an additional resource. These are listed below and may also be linked to from the Treaties, Instruments and Cases listings in each unit. Other such documents are also publicly available from the websites of the organisations and institutions concerned and weblinks have been provided where possible.

Given the volume of material readily available for this subject, students should note that study of the provided textbook, unit text and key readings are considered sufficient for the purposes of the examination and should manage their study time accordingly.


These audio files are available in your e-study guide.

The module author, Professor Keith Porter of the Law School, Cornell University is interviewed by Mr Laurence Smith, of CeDEP, SOAS, University of London. They discuss the development of Keith's career and how he became interested in law. Both work on water management and their conversation continues to consider the relevance of the law to water resource management and to environmental managers, activities and decision-makers. You can listen to this interview at any time, but you may find it most interesting at the commencement of your studies.

Click on the file interview_kporter.mp3 to open or download the interview.

Mrs Mary Jane Porter is interviewed by Laurence Smith. Mary Jane is an alumnus of the MSc in Environmental Management offered by CeDEP, SOAS, and assisted in the authoring of this module. She reflects on her career in watershed (catchment) management in New York State, her experience as a distance learning student studying International Environmental Law, and the relevance of law to her work with watershed management groups. You can listen to this interview at any time but may find it most helpful when starting your study and planning how to prioritise your time. It's worth listening to again when the examinations approach.

Click on the file interview_mjporter.mp3 to open or download the interview.