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16.3: Environmental Laws and Policies

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    When conservation priorities have been identified, there are several options available to preserve biodiversity. One option could involve the establishment of protected areas where ecological restoration and species conservation projects can be carried out. Conservation biologists could also start an environmental education program that would help people live more sustainably on unprotected lands. Under certain conditions, however, especially when control and protection measures fail, restrictions or outright bans of some human activities may be necessary (Keeley and Scoones, 2014). The most effective restrictions and bans involve legislative actions that also establish mechanisms to enforce environmental laws and regulations, and mechanisms that reduce consumer demand (Challender and MacMillan, 2014).

    Environmental laws and regulations are implemented at three different levels: international treaties, national laws, and local laws. While the scope of each of these levels differs, they are intricately connected with one another. International treaties influence national laws, but also depend on their enforcement to succeed, while national laws are guided by local needs as well as customary laws that have been in place for generations. Ideally speaking, international and national laws set minimum benchmarks, which regional and local governments adopt and enforce. Local and regional laws may sometimes set stricter standards in areas where the environment is more sensitive, more damaged, or more important for human well-being. Local and national legislatures may also choose to ignore broader legislation, through non-cooperation and non-enforcement. But this is not advisable as it may lead to further environmental deterioration, loss of funding, and even trade embargoes and sanctions that could harm local economies.

    International agreements

    International agreements provide frameworks that allow countries to work together to protect biodiversity (Sands and Peel, 2012). These international agreements, called treaties or conventions, are needed for five important reasons: (1) many species migrate and disperse across administrative borders, (2) ecosystems do not follow administrative boundaries, (3) pollution spreads by air and water across regions and around the globe, (4) many biological products are traded internationally, and (5) some environmental problems (e.g. climate change and pollution) require global cooperation and coordination. To pass international treaties, agreements are negotiated at international conferences under the authority of international bodies such as the UN, UNEP, or IUCN and come into force when they are ratified by an agreed-upon number of countries. These treaties are then implemented at the local level when signatory countries pass national laws to enforce them.

    International agreements provide frameworks that allow countries to work together to protect biodiversity.

    One of the most important international environmental treaties is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, The CBD formulated and signed following the UN Earth Summit (also called Rio Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, has played a major role in raising awareness of the value of biodiversity to humanity. At this meeting, representatives from 178 countries formulated and eventually signed the CBD, obligating signatory countries to protect biodiversity through careful management of nature for the benefit of humans. The CBD was expanded in 2010 to also include recommendations for the protection of IUCN Red Listed species and ecosystems, as part of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Table 16.3.1).

    Table 16.3.1 The UN, with governments across the world, have agreed to work on five strategic goals and 20 specific targets (collectively known as Aichi Biodiversity Targets) to halt the loss of biodiversity and protect and restore what remains.

    CBD strategic goal

    Aichi Target


    Address underlying causes of biodiversity losses

    1. Improve awareness of biodiversity values

    2. Integrate biodiversity values into development

    3. Eliminate perverse subsidies; incentivize sustainability

    4. Implement plans for sustainable consumption and production


    Reduce pressures on biodiversity

    5. Reduce the rate of habitat loss by at least 50%

    6. Ensure sustainable use of marine resources

    7. Ensure sustainable agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry

    8. Reduce pollution to non-detrimental levels

    9. Identify and control priority invasive species

    10. Reduce pressures on climate-sensitive ecosystems


    Safeguard ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity

    11. Increase coverage of well-managed protected areas

    12. Prevent the extinction of threatened species

    13. Prevent genetic erosion of biodiversity


    Enable more people to enjoy the benefits of biodiversity

    14. Restore and safeguard ecosystems and essential services

    15. Restore and enhance resilience of degraded ecosystems

    16. Ensure fair and equitable sharing of ecosystem services


    Implement participatory biodiversity strategies

    17. Implement participatory national biodiversity strategies

    18. Respect and conserve traditional knowledge

    19. Improve, share, and apply biodiversity knowledge

    20. Mobilize resources to address Aichi Targets


    There are also several international agreements seeking the direct protection of targeted threatened species. One of the most important treaties of this nature is CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora,, agreed upon in 1973 in Washington, DC. This treaty, ratified by 175 countries, establishes lists (known as Appendices) of species for which member nations agree to ban, restrict, control, and monitor international trade. Over 35,000 species of plants and animals appear on these appendices, many also listed as threatened by the IUCN. The treaty is limited in its reach because it only deals with international movement of organisms or their parts. It is also limited by various countries’ ability or willingness to enforce the treaty and supporting legislation.

    Species can be listed in one of three CITES appendices. Trade is banned for Appendix I species, which are threatened with extinction. For example the trade of ivory is banned by CITES. Trade is regulated for Appendix II species, such as the meat and shells of the queen conch or big-leaf mahogany (figure 16.4.b16.4.b). Appendix III species are protected in at least one country, and the local government needs a coordinated response through CITES. For example, several species of red and pink corals have been added to Appendix III at the request of China.

    Big-leaf mahogany trees at a plantation in Maui, Hawaii

    Figure 16.3.1: Big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) timber is used to make furniture, musical instruments, boats, and other products. It listed in CITES Appendix II, meaning that it is regulated. Specifically, a permit is required to ship big-leaf mahogany timber. Image by Forest and Kim Starr (CC-BY).

    The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is an agreement between the United States and Canada that was signed into law in 1918 in response to declines in North American bird species caused by hunting. Figure 16.3.2 depicts the migratory routes for North American birds. The Act now lists over 800 protected species. It makes it illegal to disturb or kill the protected species or distribute their parts (much of the hunting of birds in the past was for their feathers). Examples of protected species include northern cardinals, the Red-tailed Hawk, and the American Black Vulture.

    Figure 16.3.2: North American Flyways used by migratory birds. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

    The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (sometimes shortened to Bonn Convention, is another important treaty that seeks the protection of specifically targeted species. The Bonn Convention came into force in 1983, and has over 120 Parties. As with CITES, the Bonn Convention categorizes species under Appendices. Species on Appendix I are threatened with extinction; “Range States” to Appendix I species are obliged to afford those species’ strict protections. Appendix II lists species whose populations would significantly benefit from international cooperation.

    Several international agreements seek the protection of important ecosystems. Perhaps the most prominent is Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage (, which protects natural (and cultural) areas of international significance. As of mid-2021, UNESCO (the organization managing the list of World Heritage Sites) recognized 1,154 World Heritage Sites across 167 countries; this includes 218 natural sites (Figure 16.3.3), 897 cultural sites and 39 mixed properties.  There are 24 sites in the United States including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades National Parks.

    Figure 16.3.3 The Maloti-Drakenberg Park World Heritage Site, on the borders of South Africa and Lesotho, protects globally significant natural and cultural heritage. Photograph by Diriye Amey,, CC BY 4.0.

    Another important treaty that seems ecosystem protection is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (, which recognizes the ecological, scientific, economic, cultural, and recreational value of freshwater, estuarine, and coastal marine ecosystems. This binds each member country to conserve and sustainably utilize its wetlands (particularly those that support migratory waterfowl), and to officially declare at least one internationally significant wetland as protected. As of 2021 2,435 sites were designated 'Ramsar sites," covering 2.5 million km2 worldwide with 420 sites are in Africa, covering over 1 million km2 and 220 sites in North America totaling 236,000 km2.

    International treaties are particularly important to the marine environment, since about two-thirds of the world’s oceans (50% of the planet) are considered international waters—that is, being outside any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), all states have the freedom to fish, travel, do research, etc. in these areas. Three examples of international agreements protecting such marine ecosystems are (1) the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter ( which regulates pollutants into the marine environment, (2) the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea ( which establishes guidelines for management of marine natural resources, and (3) the 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures ( which sanctions monitoring for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing at shipping ports.

    The 2016 Paris Agreement, which deals with greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation, serves to illustrate the difficult political negotiations (Figure 16.4.4) involved in the adoption of an international treaty. Although the negative effects of climate change have been known for several decades (Section 6.1), until recently there has been a distinct lack of action to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, as an early call to action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, representatives from 154 countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit in May 1992. In the following years, negotiations during annual UNFCCC conferences (formally known as “Conference of the Parties”, or COPs) led in the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in Japan in 1997, which marked the first attempt to set legally binding emission reduction targets. Despite broad appeal among its 192 parties, the Kyoto Protocol faced an uphill battle from the start because the USA (the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter at the time) refused to ratify it, and China (which recently overtook the USA as the biggest emitter) was exempted from compliance. While this has left the Kyoto Protocol largely a failure, it provided important lessons that contributed to the successful passing of the Paris Agreement (, which was negotiated and adopted through consensus by 195 countries (this time including the USA and China) in December 2015. The Paris Agreement went into effect on 4 November 2016 after the minimum 55 countries ratified it, marking a breakthrough in the decades-long battle to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. By mid-2019, all but one country in the world (the non-signatory being the Holy See, who as UNFCCC observer nation that cannot sign but strongly support the Agreement) have signed and/or ratified the Agreement. Most relevant to African member states are the mechanisms set up to provide developing countries with large amount of aid for climate change mitigation and adaption, much of which involves ecosystem conservation.

    Figure 16.3.4 A small group of COP21 delegates, led by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, negotiating the final terms of the Paris Agreement before its adoption on 12 December 2015. Photograph by Benjamin Géminel,, CC0.

    While it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement, the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer ( illustrates how international cooperation can be effective in preventing environmental disasters. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that a range of chemicals (primarily chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) commonly used in agriculture, energy production, and even common household items (such as refrigerators and aerosol spray canisters) were depleting the atmospheric ozone layer. The ozone layer is critical for human life; by cutting the amount of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun that reaches the Earth’s surface, protection from the ozone layer reduces skin cancer, cataracts, and crop damage. In response to this threat, the Montreal Protocol aimed to phase out those substances that were responsible for ozone depletion. Since then, the ozone layer has steadily recovered; current projections suggest that the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels in the second half of the 21st century. Towards the end of his tenure as Secretary General of the UN (1997–2006), Ghana’s Kofi Annan declared, “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol”. The Montreal Protocol’s success is directly due to this widespread adoption and implementation.

    This page titled 16.3: Environmental Laws and Policies is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.