Naturenet: UK Law and the Environment

UK Law and the Environment
by John Hartshorne

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nvironmental law is a term that is used in the UK to include a vast variety of legislation which is, in some way, concerned with the control of environmental damage. Some laws are very narrow and relate to only one issue or activity - such as the Mobile Homes Act 1983. In recent years many older laws have been consolidated into large, wide ranging Acts. Two very important examples are the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environment Act 1995. These replaced and modified much previous environmental legislation.

During the last 20 years there has been a greater public awareness of environmental issuesEnvironmental law receives more attention today than in the past. During the last 20 years there has been a greater public awareness of environmental issues which have been brought to the public's attention by major world events such as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and various oil tanker disasters around the world which received massive media coverage. In addition, pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are constantly forcing environmental issues into the media. Within the European Union, environmental legislation is a high priority and the UK has been forced to take it seriously through a number of European Union Directives.

Environmental law is found in the national law of the United Kingdom, European Union law and iInternational law. Laws reflect policies and policies reflect the vision of the government of the day and, to some extent, the will of the people. As a result legislation is always perceived as being weak by those who support it. For example, there is little disagreement that pollution levels from vehicles should be reduced but a law which banned cars would gain little support!

There are a wide variety of means available for the enforcement of environmental law. Criminal prosecution may impose a fine or imprisonment. Injunctions or claims for damages may prevent some harm from occurring or compensate for injury sustained. Licences or contracts may regulate and set standards. For example, the Environment AgencyPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet is responsible for issuing discharge consents for companies wishing to discharge wastes into rivers. Enforcement Agencies (such as the Environment Agency) have wide powers to inspect, report and take action over pollution.

Novel and potentially very effective approaches to environmental legislation have been developed recently. The introduction of Integrated Pollution Control sets standards for products and processes rather than for discharges or emissions. The growth of environmental labelling has assisted in making consumers aware of the environmental impacts of the products they buy.

The use of taxation instead of legal sanctions to reduce environmental damage is not new, but is finally being seriously considered. For example the use of a carbon (energy) tax to reduce and improve the efficiency of fossil fuel use may well be far more effective than legal sanctions.

One problem which would be associated with such a measure would be how to protect the poorest in society from the increased cost of fuel. The principle that the 'polluter pays' is seen as a preventive measure to encourage waste avoidance and prevent pollution. Encouraging the replacement of fossil fuel derived electricity with renewables has been to some extent encouraged through the 'non-fossil fuel obligation' which obliges distributors of electricity to source some of their power from renewables. The additional costs are borne by a levy on fossil fuel derived electricity under the Electricity Act 1989.

The contents of this page owe a great deal to 'Environment and the Law' by John F. McEldoney and Sharron McEldowney. Longman 1996 ISBN 0 582 22712 7, which the author acknowledges.