Understanding Environmental Law: Definition and Scope

What is environmental law and what does an environmental lawyer do? Environmental law is a collective term encompassing aspects of law that focus on protecting the natural environment, human health, and natural resources. It is a complex web of regulations, policies, and statutes designed to address issues such as air and water quality, waste management, and pollution control.

The purpose of environmental law is to protect human health, preserve the environment for present and future generations, and ensure sustainable development. Environmental laws are implemented and enforced by various government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States.

These agencies are tasked with monitoring and regulating activities that may have an impact on the environment, including industrial operations, environmental impact assessment and conservation.

Environmental law focuses on a wide range of topics such as: air quality laws, water quality, waste management, chemical safety, and the protection of endangered species. These laws are designed to minimize the environmental impact of human activities and prevent environmental contamination.

At the international level, environmental law encompasses worldwide environmental agreements that address global issues such as climate change, ozone depletion, and the protection of biodiversity. These agreements are often negotiated and implemented through cooperation between national governments and international organizations.

Environmental law is constantly evolving in response to emerging environmental challenges, advancements in environmental science, and societal demands for greater environmental protection. As a result, the field of both environmental science and law continues to grow in importance and complexity, making it a crucial component of modern society.


The Importance of Environmental Protection for Human Health

Protecting the environment is not only essential for preserving the natural world but also to protect human health. Environmental laws are designed to address various environmental concerns that can directly or indirectly impact human health, such as air pollution, water pollution, and dangerous waste.

Air pollution, for instance, has been linked to numerous health issues, including respiratory diseases, heart disease, and even cancer. Environmental laws regulate emissions from various sources, including vehicles, factories, and power plants, to protect air quality and reduce the risks associated with poor air quality.

Water quality is another critical area of focus in environmental law. Contaminated water can pose significant risks to human health, leading to illnesses and even death. Environmental laws and regulations are in place to monitor and control water pollution, ensuring that water sources are safe for consumption and other uses.

Hazardous waste management is yet another aspect of environmental law that impacts human health. Improper disposal of hazardous substances can lead to environmental contamination and pose risks to human health.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and other regulations help prevent waste from harming people and the environment.

By addressing these and other environmental issues, environmental laws play a vital role in protecting human health and ensuring a safe, sustainable future for all. These regulations create a framework for industries, governments, and individuals to follow, ensuring that our actions do not harm the environment or our health.


Key Areas of Environmental Law: Air Quality, Water Quality, and Waste Management

Environmental law covers a broad range of issues, with air quality, water quality, and waste management being some of its key areas of focus. These aspects of environmental law are critical for maintaining a healthy environment and ensuring we protect the environment and well-being of present and future generations.

Regulations, through such laws as the Clean Air Act, aim to reduce air pollution by establishing standards for emissions from various sources, including vehicles, power plants, and factories. These regulations help combat smog, acid rain, and other issues, ultimately protecting health and the environment.

Laws such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act protect water sources from pollution, ensuring that they are safe for consumption, recreation, and other uses.

These laws regulate discharges of pollutants into waters and set standards for drinking water, protecting aquatic ecosystems and health.

Waste management is a crucial aspect of environmental law, encompassing solid waste, hazardous waste, and nuclear waste. Regulations like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) establish guidelines for waste generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal, ensuring that waste is managed responsibly and does not pose a threat to the environment or health.


The Role of the EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency is a critical player in the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws in the United States. Established in 1970, the EPA is responsible for developing and enforcing regulations that protect health and the environment.

The EPA's primary functions include setting and enforcing environmental standards, conducting research to support these standards, and providing assistance to state and local governments for environmental management. The EPA also plays a vital role in ensuring compliance with environmental laws through inspections, monitoring, and enforcement actions.

Some of the major laws overseen by the EPA include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the RCRA. The EPA works in collaboration with other federal, state, and local agencies to protect the environment and public health by regulating pollution, promoting waste reduction, and supporting sustainable development.

The EPA is also actively involved in international environmental cooperation, working with foreign governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations to address global environmental issues such as transboundary pollution.

By setting standards, monitoring compliance, and enforcing environmental laws, the EPA plays a crucial role in safeguarding health and the environment, ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.


The Impact of Environmental Law on Businesses

Environmental law has a significant impact on businesses, shaping the way they operate, manufacture, and manage waste. Companies must comply with environmental regulations, which may include obtaining permits, meeting emissions standards, and following waste management guidelines.

Compliance with environmental laws can lead to increased operational efficiency, reduced waste, and improved environmental performance. By adhering to these regulations, businesses can protect themselves from legal liabilities, avoid fines and penalties, and enhance their reputation among customers, investors, and other stakeholders.

Moreover, many companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of sustainable business practices, adopting voluntary measures such as green procurement, renewable energy sourcing, and corporate social responsibility initiatives. These efforts can help businesses stay competitive in a growing market for eco-friendly products and services, while also contributing to environmental protection and conservation.


Environmental Law and Public Participation

Public participation is a fundamental aspect of environmental law, ensuring that individuals and communities have a say in decisions that affect their health and the environment. This involvement can take many forms, from attending public hearings and submitting comments on proposed federal regulations, to participating in community cleanup events and advocating for stronger environmental protections.

Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the United States require federal agencies to engage the public in decision-making processes related to environmental impacts. This includes preparing environmental impact statements (EIS) and providing opportunities for public input on projects that could significantly affect the environment.

Participation not only ensures that a wide range of perspectives are considered in environmental decision-making but also fosters greater awareness and understanding of environmental issues among the general population. By engaging citizens in the process, environmental law can help empower individuals and communities to advocate for a cleaner, healthier environment.


Environmental Justice and Environmental Law

Environmental justice is a critical component of environmental law, addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on vulnerable communities. Often, low-income and minority populations are more likely to be exposed to pollution and other environmental risks, due to factors such as housing location and lack of resources to mitigate these threats.

Environmental justice seeks to ensure that all communities, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, enjoy the same level of environmental protection and have equal access to decision-making processes related to their environment. This can involve addressing disparities in environmental enforcement, promoting equitable distribution of environmental benefits, and ensuring meaningful participation in environmental decision-making.

Laws and regulations that incorporate environmental justice principles can help to reduce environmental disparities and promote social equity, ensuring that all communities can enjoy a clean and healthy environment.


International Environmental Law: Cooperation and Compliance

International environmental law is a rapidly evolving field that addresses global environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, and transboundary pollution. Through international agreements, countries can cooperate and collaborate to tackle these complex challenges that require collective action.

Key global environmental agreements include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. These agreements set standards and goals, establish reporting and monitoring mechanisms, and provide a platform for countries to work together on shared environmental concerns.

However, compliance with international environmental law can be challenging, as enforcement mechanisms are often weaker than those found in domestic law. To promote compliance, international agreements may include financial incentives, capacity-building support, and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Overall, international environmental law plays a crucial role in promoting global cooperation and coordination to address pressing environmental challenges and ensure a sustainable future for all.


The Future of Environmental Law: Emerging Challenges and Opportunities

As the world continues to face new and complex environmental challenges, environmental law must adapt and evolve to address these issues effectively.

Environmental law will need to focus on both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping communities adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. This may involve developing new regulations and incentives for renewable energy, promoting energy efficiency, and ensuring that infrastructure is resilient to climate-related risks.

Biodiversity loss is another pressing concern, with many species facing extinction due to habitat destruction, and pollution. Environmental law can play a crucial role in preserving biodiversity by protecting critical habitats, regulating the trade in endangered species, and promoting sustainable land use practices.

Single-use plastics and plastic pollution pose a significant threat to the environment, particularly marine ecosystems. Environmental law can address this issue by promoting the reduction, reuse, and recycling of plastics, implementing bans or fees on single-use items, and encouraging the development of alternatives to plastic materials.

The transition to a circular economy, where resources are used efficiently and waste is minimized, presents both challenges and opportunities for environmental law. New regulations and incentives may be needed to promote sustainable production and consumption practices, encourage waste reduction and recycling, and foster innovation in resource-efficient technologies.

By addressing these emerging challenges, environmental law can help pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient future, protecting the environment and the health and well-being of communities worldwide.


Environmental Law Education and Awareness

Educating the public about environmental law and its importance is essential for ensuring widespread understanding and compliance. Awareness campaigns, school curricula, and public outreach initiatives can help to inform citizens about their rights and responsibilities under environmental law, as well as the potential consequences of non-compliance.

In addition, educational programs can also promote a greater understanding of the link between environmental law and broader environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, and pollution. By fostering a more environmentally literate population, these initiatives can help to build public support for strong and effective environmental laws and regulations.


The Role of NGOs and Civil Society in Environmental Law

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society play a crucial role in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental law. These groups can advocate for stronger environmental protections, monitor compliance with existing laws, and provide support to communities affected by environmental problems.

NGOs, such as Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), often engage in lobbying, public awareness campaigns, and legal action to advance their environmental goals. By working closely with governments, businesses, and local communities, these organizations can help to ensure that environmental laws are effectively implemented and enforced.


The Intersection of Environmental Law and Human Rights

Environmental law and human rights are closely interconnected, as a clean and healthy environment is essential for the enjoyment of many fundamental rights, such as the rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living.

As a result, environmental laws and regulations can play a critical role in protecting and promoting human rights, particularly for vulnerable populations who may be disproportionately affected by environmental problems.

Conversely, human rights law can also provide a powerful framework for advancing environmental protection, by recognizing the rights of individuals and communities to participate in decision-making processes related to the environment, access information on environmental risks, and seek remedies for environmental harms.


The Role of Courts in Environmental Law

Courts play a vital role in interpreting, applying, and enforcing environmental law. Through judicial review, courts can assess the legality of government actions and decisions related to the environment, ensuring that they comply with applicable laws and regulations. Courts can also resolve disputes between parties, such as cases involving environmental harms or violations of environmental permits.

Moreover, courts can play a proactive role in shaping environmental law by interpreting legal provisions and principles, establishing precedents, and providing guidance for future cases. In some instances, courts may recognize new rights or remedies related to environmental protection, thereby expanding the scope of existing laws and regulations.


The Role of Technology in Environmental Law

Technology plays a significant role in environmental law, both in terms of monitoring and enforcement and in providing innovative solutions to environmental challenges. Advanced technologies, such as remote sensing, satellite imagery, and data analytics, can enable more efficient monitoring of environmental compliance and help identify potential violations more quickly.

In addition, technological innovations can support the development and implementation of more effective environmental laws and regulations.

For example, cleaner production technologies, renewable energy sources, and waste reduction solutions can help businesses and individuals comply with environmental standards while also contributing to a more sustainable future for developing countries.

Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, also hold promise for improving environmental law enforcement and compliance.

AI can be used to analyze large datasets, predict environmental impacts, and identify patterns of non-compliance, while blockchain can provide secure and transparent record-keeping for environmental permits, certifications, and transactions.


Addressing Climate Change through Environmental Laws

Environmental laws play a crucial role in addressing climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable practices. They help limit global warming by setting emissions standards, encouraging the use of renewable resources, and promoting energy efficiency.

Environmental laws also support carbon trading schemes and other market-based mechanisms that incentivize industries to reduce their carbon footprint. By holding corporations accountable for their impact on the environment, these laws aim to protect present and future generations from dire consequences.


The Connection between Natural Resources and Environmental Law

Environmental law and natural resources are intrinsically linked, as the former aims to conserve, manage, and sustainably use the latter. Environmental regulations govern land management, water quality, air quality, conservation, contaminant cleanup, and protecting species deemed important to support species recovery - all of which serves to prevent overexploitation and depletion.

By protecting natural resources, environmental laws support ecological balance, biodiversity, and the overall well-being of ecosystems. This, in turn, ensures resource sustainability and maintains a healthy environment.


International Environmental Agreements: Collaborating for a Greener Future

These treaties and conventions establish common goals, set binding targets, and provide frameworks for collaboration. Examples include the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity. By working together under international agreements, countries can tackle environmental challenges more effectively and share resources, technology, and expertise to create a greener future.


The Work of Environmental Lawyers: Advocating for the Environment

Environmental lawyers play a pivotal role in advocating for the environment by representing clients in legal disputes, ensuring regulatory compliance, and advising on environmental policies.

They may work with government agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and individuals to protect the environment and promote sustainable practices. Environmental lawyers could also help draft and enforce environmental regulations, litigate contamination cases, and negotiate agreements to mitigate environmental harm.


The Interplay of Federal, State, and Local Environmental Laws

Environmental laws function at multiple levels – federal, state, and local – to create a comprehensive regulatory framework. Federal laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, provide overarching guidelines and minimum standards that state and local governments must follow.

State and local laws may impose additional restrictions or requirements tailored to the specific needs and conditions of their jurisdictions. This multi-layered approach allows for more efficient and targeted environmental regulation, addressing the unique challenges faced by different regions.


Environmental Regulations: Balancing Developmental and Environmental Needs

Environmental regulations aim to strike a balance between developmental needs and environmental protection by establishing guidelines for sustainable growth. They require industries to consider environmental impact assessments, adopt pollution control measures, and implement waste management practices to minimize negative environmental consequences elsewhere.

These regulations promote sustainable development by integrating economic, social, and environmental considerations into decision-making processes, ensuring that development projects do not compromise the well-being of ecosystems and future generations.


Chemical Safety and Pollution Control in Environmental Law

Chemical safety and environmental pollution control are integral aspects of environmental law, aiming to minimize the harmful effects of hazardous substances on human health and the environment. Laws such as CERCLA establish guidelines for the handling, storage, disposal, and cleanup of hazardous waste. By regulating the use and release of toxic chemicals, these laws protect ecosystems, public health, and natural resources from environmental contamination.


The Public’s Help

Public participation in environmental decision-making is vital for creating effective and inclusive policies. By involving citizens in the regulatory process, governments can better understand local concerns, address potential conflicts, and foster a sense of ownership among the public.

Public input can take various forms, such as community consultations, public hearings, and submission of comments on proposed regulations. This engagement enhances the quality of decision-making by incorporating diverse perspectives, resulting in more equitable and sustainable outcomes. Additionally, participation increases transparency and accountability, fostering trust in the environmental regulatory process.


American Public University’s Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies Degree

American Public University’s Bachelor Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies Science in Legal Studies degree program is designed for individuals who seek a deeper understanding of the legal system and its complexities. This program provides students with a solid foundation in the law, legal theory, and practical skills.

The program is offered through the School of Security and Global Studies and is delivered entirely online, making it an ideal choice for busy professionals or those with family obligations. American Public University’s asynchronous learning schedule also allows students to balance their coursework with their other responsibilities.


Competitive and Affordable Tuition Rates

American Public University is committed to providing high-quality education at an affordable price. The tuition rates for the Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies degree program are competitive with other institutions offering similar programs. Additionally, the University offers a variety of financial aid options including grants.


Transfer Credit Process

American Public University accepts eligible transfer credits from other accredited institutions, making it easier for students to continue their education and save money on tuition.1 The University also offers credit for prior learning, allowing students to earn credit for knowledge and skills they have acquired outside the classroom.



American Public University is part of American Public University System, which is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. HLC accreditation demonstrates that the University meets high standards for academic quality and is committed to continuous improvement. The Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies degree program is also approved by the American Bar Association® (ABA), which is an additional indication of the program's quality and rigor.


Expert Faculty Members and Academic Advisors

The Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies degree program is taught by experienced faculty members who are experts in their fields. They bring real-world experience and academic expertise to the classroom, providing students with a rich learning experience. American Public University also has a team of academic advisors who are available to help students navigate their academic journey and provide guidance on course selection, degree requirements, and other options.

The Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies degree program includes a variety of courses that cover topics such as legal writing, criminal law, and constitutional law. Here are four selected courses from the program:

Legal Research and Writing

This course provides an introduction to legal research and writing. Students will learn how to use primary and secondary sources to research legal issues and how to write legal documents such as briefs, memos, and letters.

Criminal Law

This course covers the principles of criminal law, including the elements of criminal offenses, defenses to criminal charges, and the criminal justice system. Students will analyze cases and statutes to gain a deeper understanding of criminal law.

Constitutional Law

This course explores the principles and doctrines of constitutional law, including the separation of powers, federalism, and individual rights. Students will analyze landmark cases and explore contemporary legal issues related to the Constitution.

Tort Law

This course covers the law of civil wrongs, including intentional torts, negligence, and strict liability. Students will analyze cases and statutes to gain a deeper understanding of tort law.

American Public University’s Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies degree program provides students with a solid foundation in legal theory, practical skills, and critical thinking.

The program is designed to be flexible and convenient for busy professionals, with competitive tuition rates and a transfer credit process that makes it easier for students to continue their education. Learn more about the program today.

1.      The University reserves the right to accept or deny credits according to the policies outlined on the University website. Actual time to completion will be based upon transfer credit evaluation and eligibility.

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