Environmental law, also known as environmental and natural resources law, is a collective term describing the network of treaties, statutes, regulations, common and customary laws addressing the effects of human activity on the natural environment. The core environmental law regimes address environmental pollution. A related but distinct set of regulatory regimes, now strongly influenced by environmental legal principles, focus on the management of specific natural resources, such as forests, minerals, or fisheries. Other areas, such as environmental impact assessment, may not fit neatly into either category, but are nonetheless important components of environmental law.
Notwithstanding early analogues, the concept of “environmental law” as a separate and distinct body of law is a twentieth-century development. The recognition that the natural environment was fragile and in need of special legal protections, the translation of that recognition into legal structures, the development of those structures into a larger body of “environmental law,” and the strong influence of environmental law on natural resource laws, did not occur until about the 1960s. At that time, numerous influences – including a growing awareness of the unity and fragility of the biosphere; increased public concern over the impact of industrial activity on natural resources and human health; the increasing strength of the regulatory state; and more broadly the advent and success of environmentalism as a political movement – coalesced to produce a huge new body of law in a relatively short period of time. While the modern history of environmental law is one of continuing controversy, by the end of the twentieth century environmental law had been established as a component of the legal landscape in all developed nations of the world, many developing ones, and the larger project of international law.