1.3 Guiding principles of environment law

There are several guiding principles of environmental law at a national and international level. These can be useful as courts may sometimes use the principles when making decisions.

In 1992, the Northern Territory Government, Commonwealth Government and the States and Territories made an agreement to take environmental principles into account when making decisions and developing and implementing policy. This agreement is called the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. The main concern under this agreement is Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). ESD means using, conserving and improving natural resources so that the ecological processes on which life depends can continue in the future.

ESD has four main principles:

  • the precautionary principle

  • the principle of intergenerational equity

  • conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity

  • improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms such as the “polluter pays” principle

Other guiding principles are:[i]

  • public participation in decision making

  • access to information and to justice

  • application of environmental impact assessment

The precautionary principle

This principle means that where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.[ii]

This generally means that if we are uncertain about the potential environmental damage that may be caused by our activities, we should take precautions to prevent damage occurring.

The principle of intergenerational equity

This means that the current generation should make sure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment continues for the benefit of future generations.

Conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity

This means conserving the diversity of flora and fauna and the health and sustainability of ecosystems.

Improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms and the polluter pays principle

This means integrating long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and fairness considerations into decision-making. For example, by making sure that the price of products reflects the true costs of both production and disposal at the end of a product’s life. The “polluter pays” principle means that the costs of pollution and waste should be paid by those who cause the pollution or create waste.

Public participation in decision making

This means that members of the public should be able to participate at different stages of environmental decision-making processes. There are different opportunities to participate in decision-making, depending on the rights given to the public under different Acts.

At an international level, agreements such as the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters 1998 (called the Aarhus Convention) reflect the principle of public participation.

Access to information and to justice

This means providing people access to information and to the courts. For example, people can access environmental information by making a request for information under the Northern Territory Information Act or the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982.  For more information, read our Fact Sheets on Access to information.  Access to the courts means a legal right to bring a claim.

Application of environmental impact assessment

This means taking the assessment of environmental impacts into account when making decisions.  For more information about environmental impact assessment in the Northern Territory, read our Fact Sheets on Environmental Impact Assessment.

[i] See Bates. G, Environmental Law in Australia (7th ed, 2010), 209.

[ii] See the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration on the Environment.

© 2019 Environmental Defenders Office (NT) Inc.