International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements


International Environmental Law 101 is a series that will dive into the manifold dimensions of preserving the environment from human destruction and economic development. The main objective of these articles is to provide a comprehensible grasp of the institutions, agreements, and principles which fight against climate change, wildlife extinction, and contamination, and fight for sustainable practices.

International Environmental Law 101 will be predominantly divided into the following chapters:

1. International Environmental Law 101: How the Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement

2. International Environmental Law 101: A Regime of Principle

3. International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers

4. International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements

5. International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature

6. International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development

7. International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean

8. International Environmental Law 101: What will the Future Bring

In the last chapter of this series, the officials that lead and decide in the field of environmental law were put under the microscope, discussed, and diagnosed. The question remains. What do they take decisions about?

Image 1. Law (Polanco/ Economist, 2019)

International Environmental Law is a large term containing a multitude of issues that need to be addressed. Right now the planet is facing the everlasting issue of climate change, poor air quality, ozone depletion, soil pollution, destruction of natural sources and reserves. Forests are destroyed by fire or human activity, the population distribution and development is excessively unbalanced, water is polluted, waste needs to be managed properly and human health is suffering. Biodiversity is in danger. Every single one of these issues is monitored, investigated, and reported on, and these reports help lawmakers and world leaders build policy to protect the environment. Multilateral environmental agreements are the chosen form of policy that regulates environmental damage.

Multilateral environmental agreements are a hard law tool that bind States to commit to reach certain goals and requirements that are set by the treaty. They are negotiated and signed on a regional or global level with multiple parties on board. Agreements can be found in the name of treaties, conventions, agreements, or protocols but their title does not amount to their level of importance. They are all important and binding for the parties who have signed them.

For a long time, Environmental Law was cursed with soft law texts. Those are easily identified because they would or will be titled as declarations of conferences, action plans, recommendations, or resolutions. These forms of ‘policy’ are merely suggestions, and they do not bind anyone. States can marvel at the importance of their existence for the environment while doing nothing about them. Until the last years of the millennium, very few binding agreements have been signed by States because until then they did not take environmental issues seriously. The destruction was not yet evident to everyone and at the time, economic development and security issues were at the forefront of leaders’ minds. Of course, that is still the case today but as the environment takes center stage in public discussions and the planet is deteriorating, they are called to action.

The first-generation multilateral agreements that came into place were straight to the point and dealt with the matter at hand separately. They were focused heavily on treatment, not prevention, and the protection of biodiversity was the sole goal. One might say they lacked sophistication but they still were at a pre-emptive state of environmental lawmaking and they were something more than a mere suggestion.

Image 2. Restoration (Foreign Policy, 2019)

The 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, is a perfect example of treaties of this era, aiming to protect endangered species from trade and overexploitation. Flora and Fauna are classified by their species, the level of danger they face and the measures that need to be taken to save them. States that have signed and ratified this treaty are monitored and expected to comply. In the same year, the International Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was also conceived with the goal to take action against accidental pollution and the organized operations of shipping that routinely create pollution. The convention acted as the whistleblower of change in the type of treaties that were adopted because it focused heavily on the prevention character of management.

When discussing the issue of marine environmental protection, MARPOL and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are the two relevant ones. UNCLOS is one of the most extended texts of policy modulating every single parameter that affects any body of water. One of them is water pollution. It sets boundaries on how governments, civilians, ships, the army, and fisheries should conduct themselves in the water or the ocean floor, whether it is in their territory or not. The natural reserves that reside in it cannot be used or overused at will.

The UN Rio Conference in 1992 was monumental for environmental agreements. Thought to be the most important one of all the Conferences of the United Nations for the Environment, Rio brought about a new beginning for multilateral agreements which started to dominate the field and also connected development with sustainability. The next-generation treaties had a more holistic approach. They investigated the cause of the practices that resulted in pollution, how to prevent them and going beyond solely managing the after-effect damages. In Rio, a few major hard law conventions were adopted as a result, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

To manage biological diversity, meaning all forms of life on earth, there are three interlinked agreements. First and foremost, the Convention on Biological Diversity, acting as an official admission that the Earth's biological resources are being put to the wrong use. The convention combats agriculture, fishery, forestry, and land use that harm nature conservation. The main points of interest are the emphasis on the sustainable use of resources and the equitable way of sharing their benefits, as well as establishing certain protected areas and ecosystems. This treaty was specified by two added protocols that aim for the protection of biodiversity, the Cartagena Protocol of 2000 and the Nagoya Protocol of 2010. The Cartagena Protocol tackles biosafety and the struggles of safe trade of modified living organisms. These include crops that are modified to boost productivity in agriculture and other areas of economic development that can be harmful to the environment and its inhabitants. The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits is self-explanatory. Any material that contains some kind of use or value needs to be shared and not overused.

Image 3. Prevention (BBH, 2017)

Climate Change, the single most controversial and dangerous modern-day challenge is regulated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which deals with the climate and temperature and their impact on every form of life or activity on earth. It was another one of the conventions that came out of the Rio Conference. It regulates greenhouse gas concentration with a goal to ensure that food production, ecosystems, and economic development can continue their course in a sustainable manner and keep the global temperature under 2°C. The Paris Agreement that came after it and is based on it, aims to keep the temperature under 1,5°C. The differences seem small but they will make a huge amount of difference.

The Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and monitor States' practices more closely is the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was also linked to the UNFCCC. It is one of the most important agreements on climate change because it was the first time that leaders agreed to be bound by law to reduce their emissions. Every state had a set of terms and boundaries in the amount of greenhouse gas they could emmit to meet their national needs. In some cases, they bought the amounts of emissions that other states had and did not use. It was a way to provide flexibility and a motive to states that were inclined to sign but not ready to commit.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification is the agreement of interest concerning land management. It is the third of the "Rio Conventions", and it is almost universal in its signing. Sustainable development is woven inside the text of the treaty, along with measures of prevention of droughts and desertification that have become more excessive over the years.

To mitigate waste, which amounts to hundreds of millions of tons every year, the United Nations adopted the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. It is the most legally binding agreement concerning waste and controls of waste transportations that should be managed in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

There are close to a 1,000 treaties concerning the environment, some regional, others international, sometimes not binding yet or still at an early stage, all tackling a different issue. These treaties are separate but interconnected. The Paris agreement might combat climate change but it is also a parameter in land management. UNCLOS is a treaty that undertakes all the issues that are linked to water but biodiversity is inextricably connected to the ocean. At the end of the day, environmental destruction knows no boundaries.


Convention on Biological Diversity. (1992, June 5). Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and flora. CITES. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Convention, B. (1989, March 22). Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Basel Convention website. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Environment, U. N. (n.d.). Secretariats and conventions. UNEP. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. (2017, May). International Environmental Law: Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Unit, B. (2000, May 16). The Cartagena Protocol on biosafety. The Biosafety Clearing-House (BCH). Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Unit, B. (2010, October 29). The Nagoya Protocol on Access and benefit-sharing. Convention on Biological Diversity. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (1973, November 2). International Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution from Ships. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (1982, December 10). Convention on the Law of the Sea. United Nations. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (1992, June). United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (1996, December 26). United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (1997, December 11). The Kyoto Protocol. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

United Nations. (2016, April 22). The Paris Agreement. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Techera, E. J., Lindley, J., Scott, K. N., & Telesetsky, A. (2021). Routledge Handbook of International Environmental Law. Routledge.

Image Sources

Image 1. Wilson, A. (2019, October 21). Can Justin Trudeau win again in Canada? Foreign Policy. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Image 2. The Economist Newspaper. (n.d.). Make a healthy climate a legal right that extends to future generations. The Economist. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Image 3. Brown Brothers Harriman. (2017, November 28). An ounce of prevention: The meaning and management of investment risk. Brown Brothers Harriman. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from

Author Photo

Konstantina Manta

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