What are environmental principles?

  • Contributor information: CNP

25 July 2018

During the passage of the government’s key Brexit legislation there was a lot of discussion about environmental principles – the government was even defeated in the House of Lords on the issue. But what are the environmental principles and why do they matter? ClientEarth law and policy advisor Tom West provides some answers… #summerofbeauty 

The EU environmental principles offer protection to our natural world. They act as guidance for judges and decision-makers, giving laws shape and meaning. They are used in a whole host of government and public authority decisions, including planning applications, management of marine protected areas and dealing with contaminated land.

The precautionary principle:

Where there is uncertainty about the risk of environmental harm, the precautionary principle allows protective measures to be taken without having to wait until the harm materialises. This principle is valuable in managing risk where there is uncertainty about the environmental impact of an issue.

The prevention principle:

This principle requires preventive measures be taken to anticipate and avoid environmental damage before it happens. It is central to the UK’s planning policy and underlies lots of environmental legislation.

Environmental damage should be rectified at source:

Working alongside the prevention principle, this ensures damage or pollution is dealt with where it occurs. It operates in many areas of UK environmental policy to prioritise the way environmental damage is addressed. Read the report: environmental principles in UK law after Brexit

The polluter pays principle:

As the name suggests this principle holds that the person who causes pollution should bear the costs of the damage caused and any remedy required. It plays a significant role in environmental management, acting as a deterrent and directing accountability for harm.

The integration principle:

This principle requires that environmental protection is integrated into all other policy areas, in line with promoting sustainable development. That is to say all government departments have responsibilities to protect our environment.


Dartmoor by DNPA

Principles such as the precautionary principle and polluter pays are vital to protecting the landscapes we love such as Bel Tor. Photo credit: Dartmoor National Park Authority.

Why do they matter?

The EU environmental principles work together to ensure high environmental standards by directing how judges and other decision-makers should interpret the law.

For example, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the Habitats Directive – which protects over 1000 vulnerable species – must be interpreted in line with the precautionary principle, in the leading Waddenzeecase:

“So, where doubt remains as to the absence of adverse effects on the integrity of the site linked to the plan or project being considered, the competent authority will have to refuse authorisation.”

In line with the polluter pays principle, a recent Court decision in Scotland found that an insolvent coal company could not just abandon its responsibility to clean up contamination on the land where it had been operating. The Court said the costs of cleaning up the land must be enforced and treated as liquidation expenses, meaning they could not just abandon the land.

EU environmental principles are used to interpret policies, provide a basis to scrutinise and challenge government actions in court, and guide local authority decision-making.

What happens to the environmental principles after Brexit?

The government has promised the whole body of EU environmental law will continue to have effect in the UK after exit. But the current proposals to retain EU law – via the European Union (Withdrawal) Act Tom West of ClientEarth– do not go far enough.

While the Withdrawal Act lists a handful of principles that must be included in legislation before the UK leaves the EU, it proposes that the principles will only bind central government as opposed to all public bodies.

It also fails to guarantee the weight with which decision-makers must factor the principles into their work, meaning the effectiveness of the principles to protect our natural world could be undermined.

These shortcomings pose a serious risk that means our environment is under threat after the UK leaves the EU.

If the government really wants to improve environmental standards after Brexit, the principles must properly shape decision-making by government and all public bodies.

By Tom West, 

Law and policy advisor at ClientEarth

This article was originally published at ClientEarth, and reproduced with their kind permission. This post is the work of environmental lawyers ClientEarth. Read more of their work on the rule of law in environmental protection.