In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transboundary Pollution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Challenges of Regulating Transboundary Pollution by a Single State
  • Customary International Law and Transboundary Pollution

Political Science Transboundary Pollution
Helena Varkkey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0290


Transboundary pollution problems have become increasingly important issues on the agenda of politicians, economists, and natural scientists. Transboundary pollution is defined legally as pollution that originates in one country but can cause damage in another country’s environment, by crossing borders through pathways like water or air. The problems of transboundary pollution include issues like the acidification of soils and lakes through acid rain, transboundary air pollution (known variably as smog, haze, or smoke), and downstream river or ocean pollution due to upstream activities. The traditional Westphalian approach that forms the cornerstone of the modern international system is based on the notion of geopolitical units, with borders indicating the limits of state jurisdiction. However, a distinctive characteristic of transboundary pollution problems is that pollution does not remain within political boundaries. Thus, this fluid nature of the environment has posed a challenge for environmental governance within this system. This article provides a bibliographic review of the literature on transboundary pollution as an international relations problem. This review is limited to works analyzing the problem of transboundary pollution through a mainly qualitative lens, mainly using works coming from international law, international relations, and public policy disciplines. After a brief discussion of some general works and issue-based journals, the first substantive section focuses on literature discussing the challenges of single-state regulation of transboundary pollution issues. Due to these difficulties, regulatory authority has gradually shifted from national to more international levels of governance. This is the focus of the second section, which compiles works that focus on developments in international law toward the regulation and governance of transboundary pollution at the international level. This section is broadly divided in two, firstly discussing literature looking at developments in customary international law, and secondly proceeding to look at more formal means through international environmental agreements (IEAs), conventions, and treaties. The third and final section of this bibliography compiles case studies on transboundary pollution governance arranged according to environmental pathways: air and water. While these case studies are not exhaustive, they are those that are most widely covered in the literature, covering regions like North America, Europe, Asia, and to a lesser extent Northeast Asia and Latin America. This work was partially supported by the Singapore Social Science Research Council (SSRC) grant on Sustainable Governance of Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia, grant code MOE2016-SSRTG-068.

General Overviews

Useful books on this subject cover both the international law (judicial) and the international relations (nonjudicial) aspects of transboundary pollution governance. Mason 2005 provides a good introduction to the perspectives of the different actors involved. Kütting 2000 and Beyerlin, et al. 2006 each provide recommendations to measure the effectiveness of international environmental agreements (IEAs) related to transboundary pollution. Jayakumar, et al. 2015 is arguably the most contemporary collection on this subject to date. Okowa 2000 and Lee 2014 narrow down the discussion: Okowa’s work focuses exclusively on transboundary air pollution issues, while Lee’s updated volume details the regime governing environmental and pollution issues in the European Union.

  • Beyerlin, Ulrich, Peter-Tobias Stoll, and Rudiger Wolfrum. Ensuring Compliance with Multilateral Environmental Agreements: A Dialogue between Practitioners and Academia. Amsterdam: Brill, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004146174.i-394

    This book is especially valuable as it presents views from both scholars and practitioners on the ground. Contributors generally argue that IEAs should be based on cooperation and partnership rather than on confrontation. It explores such cooperative measures as inter alia reporting, inspection and monitoring, and supportive financial incentives. Several case studies look particularly at IEAs related to transboundary pollution like the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), the Helsinki Protocol, and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention).

  • Jayakumar, S., Tommy Koh, Robert Beckman, and Hao Duy Phan, eds. Transboundary Pollution: Evolving Issues of International Law and Policy. Singapore: Edward Elgar, 2015.

    This book is notable as it looks at law and policy on transboundary pollution from both national and international levels. The first part of the book focuses on the state responsibility doctrine in the context of transboundary pollution, and the second discusses the efficacy of several cooperative mechanisms that exist. While case studies handled in this book are global in origin, there is a slight focus on Asia.

  • Kütting, Gabriela. Environment, Society and International Relations: Toward More Effective International Agreements. London: Taylor & Francis, 2000.

    This book distinguishes between environmental and institutional effectiveness of IEAs. It argues that level of compliance should not be taken as evidence of effectiveness, and instead that effectiveness should be measured by the level of actual pollution abatement. This method of evaluation is applied to two case studies: the Mediterranean Action Plan and CLRTAP.

  • Lee, Maria. EU Environmental Law, Governance, and Decision-Making. 2d ed. Oxford: Hart, 2014.

    The EU environmental law regime is the most advanced supranational system and naturally includes transboundary issues. This book details the diverse body of EU laws addressing environmental matters, particularly highlighting how decision-makers reconcile available scientific information with political values and priorities. Transboundary issues discussed include industrial pollution and climate change. The first edition was published in 2005.

  • Mason, Michael. The New Accountability: Environmental Responsibility across Borders. London: Earthscan, 2005.

    This book is a useful introduction to understanding responsibility for transboundary harm. It focuses on the major actors that either cause or are affected by transboundary pollution, and explores the recourse available to them under current international law. This includes governments, corporations, and local and transnational civil society. It argues that regardless of nationality, harm producers should be held accountable.

  • Okowa, Phoebe. State Responsibility for Transboundary Air Pollution in International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198260974.001.0001

    This PhD monograph is a seminal work for understanding the role and limitations of traditional international law in governing transboundary air pollution, discussing both judicial remedies and nonjudicial methods for governing state behavior in this context. An extensive explanation of determination of responsibility and procedural obligations is offered. Uniquely, apart from traditional air pollution case studies, this book also discusses the issue of nuclear contamination.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.