In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Treaties

  • Introduction
  • History and Context of Environmental Treaties
  • Marine Treaties
  • Antarctic Treaty
  • Biodiversity-Related Treaties
  • Climate Change Treaty and Scientific Uncertainty
  • Negotiating More Effective Environmental Treaties

Environmental Science Environmental Treaties
Saleem Ali, Rebecca Pincus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0030


Environmental issues inherently transcend geopolitical boundaries, and the need for international mechanisms to address planetary problems has become increasingly salient. International environmental agreements have grown exponentially since the 1970s. According to a recent estimate from the United Nations Environment Programme, world leaders have signed up to over 500 internationally recognized agreements, including 61 atmosphere related; 155 biodiversity related; 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substances, and waste; 46 land conventions; and 196 conventions that are broadly related to issues dealing with water. Following trade, environment is now the most common area of global rule making. Global environmental agreements are formulated, ratified, and implemented through a highly complex set of circumstances that often defy systematic inquiry. The key protagonists in the environmental treaty-making system include governmental leaders and special-interest groups (such as environmental organizations, industry associations, and scientific organizations). Our aim in this article is to provide sources that cover this full panorama of stakeholders rather than particular legalistic treatises (which are better covered within the International Law category of Oxford Bibliographies in an entry by Ole Kristian Fauchald on Multilateral Environmental Agreements). The coverage provided here focuses on the process by which environmental science has been operationalized in the treaty-making process.

History and Context of Environmental Treaties

Environmental treaties have a relatively short history in the context of contemporary international law. Much of the motivation around international environmental cooperation emerged after the Industrial Revolution when recognition of ecological impacts started to dawn upon nation-states. The works in this section provide theoretical and practical discussions on international environmental law, focusing on the emergence of international institutions that have the most structural relevance to contemporary environmental treaties. Haas, et al. 1995 and Chasek 2001 discuss the capacity of environmental institutions and the issues they address, including their interaction with different actors and coalitions in this space. Sands 2003 and Bodansky 2010 give a comprehensive introductory read that synthesizes the information in an accessible manner, while Coyle and Morrow 2004 provides the philosophical exploration of the foundations of environmental law with a focus on European law. An exploration of the future of environmental law is provided in Leary and Pisupati 2010 through examples of successful and unsuccessful case studies on the governance and management of environmental concerns. Beyerlin and Marauhn 2011 explores the implications of prevalent environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity, among others, and addresses the issue of conflict between environmental regimes. The remaining three papers address specific treaties and foundations of environmental law, with Louka 2006 focusing on actors, processes, and historical background, including common law. Bodansky 2010 provides expert authored chapters on specific environmental issues, and Kim 2013 explores the evolving structures of the international environmental treaty law web, arguing for the need of multilateral environmental agreements. Yet, the challenge of harnessing effectiveness from “soft law” treaties that are hard to enforce remains paramount and largely constitutes the nexus of scholarship in this arena.

  • Beyerlin, Ulrich, and Thilo Marauhn. 2011. International environmental law. Portland, OR: Hart.

    This volume approaches the topic of international environmental law with a blend of theoretical and practical discussion, emphasizing climate change, biodiversity, and other significant contemporary environmental problems. The authors address the issue of conflict or overlap between environmental regimes, an important and often-overlooked issue.

  • Bodansky, Daniel. 2010. The art and craft of international environmental law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Bodansky’s book is a highly readable introduction to the topic of international environmental law and provides clear explanations of core concepts and elements of international environmental lawmaking, including customary law and norms, different types of policy tools and approaches, and implementation and compliance approaches.

  • Bodansky, Daniel, Jutta Brunnée, and Ellen Hey, eds. 2007. The Oxford handbook of international environmental law. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This compiled volume presents expert-authored chapters on various aspects of international environmental law.

  • Chasek, Pamela S. 2001. Earth negotiations: Analyzing thirty years of environmental diplomacy. Tokyo and New York: United Nations Univ. Press.

    Chasek’s book analyzes the negotiations process behind major international environmental agreements and examines the roles of different actors, groups, and coalitions.

  • Coyle, Sean, and Karen Morrow. 2004. The philosophical foundations of environmental law. Portland, OR: Hart.

    Coyle and Morrow provide a useful exploration of the philosophical foundations of environmental law. Although the specific focus of the book is on European law, its discussion of the concepts of property, property rights, and the relationship between humans and the natural world provides a helpful foundation for further exploration of international environmental law.

  • Gillespie, Alexander. 2014. International environmental law, policy, and ethics. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198713456.001.0001

    Gillespie provides a multidisciplinary perspective on the topic in his International Environmental Law, Policy, and Ethics, now in its second edition. This book takes an unsparing look at the flaws in many global international environmental treaties, and seeks to understand how national interests pursued by states lay the ground for these flaws. This book serves as a useful text for students of international environmental law.

  • Haas, Peter, Robert O. Keohane, and Mark A. Levy, eds. 1995. Institutions for the earth: Sources of effective international environmental protection. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    This book discusses three major functions of international environmental institutions: building capacity, improving the contractual environment, and elevating governmental concern. Several key international organizations are discussed.

  • Kim, Rakhyun. 2013. The emergent network structure of the multilateral environmental agreement system. Global Environmental Change 23:980–991.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.07.006

    The proliferation of international environmental agreements is discussed by Kim, who has conducted a network analysis on these agreements and discusses the interlocking nature of contemporary environmental law. Kim argues that the body of international environmental law needs to be approached as a “complex networked system” rather than a series of independent structures.

  • Leary, David Kenneth, and Balakrishna Pisupati, eds. 2010. The future of international environmental law. New York: United Nations Univ. Press.

    Leary and Pisupati’s book explores the future of international environmental law by exploring examples of successes and failures, and making the case for the importance of governance to managing environmental crises.

  • Louka, Elli. 2006. International environmental law: Fairness, effectiveness, and world order. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511618109

    This book addresses many aspects of international environmental law, including specific treaties as well as foundational principles, such as pollution prevention, the precautionary principle, and sustainable development. In addition, Louka explains the actors and processes of international lawmaking and touches on the historical background, including common law, of international environmental law.

  • Sands, Phillippe. 2003. Principles of international environmental law. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511813511

    This book provides a solid and comprehensive introduction to the topic of international environmental law.

  • Weiss, Edith Brown, Stephen C. McCaffrey, Daniel Barstow Magraw, and A. Dan Tarlock. 2006. International environmental law and policy. 2d ed. Casebook Series. New York: Aspen.

    The classic international environmental law text, now in its second edition and used widely in law schools, is International Environmental Law and Policy. Weiss, McCaffrey, Magraw, and Tarlock provide an accessible yet comprehensive textbook on a key subject, and a book that will have readers returning for reference throughout a lifetime.

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