International law

Until relatively recently, international law evolved unaware of and seemingly unaffected by global environmental interdependence. In governing the relations among states, traditional international law focused on recognizing and preserving each state's sovereignty. Its underlying assumption was the freedom of control over activities within a state's national jurisdiction. Sovereignty historically included freedom of action with regard to the natural resources found within a state's national jurisdiction. The earliest limitations on activities within national boundaries consisted of narrow formulations based on the general international law obligation that no state should permit its territories to be used to harm its neighbours.

The last 20 years have witnessed a growing understanding and acceptance of the global nature of environmental degradation. Countries at the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972 accepted the declaratory principle that nations have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their borders do not cause damage to other nations or international waters. The Convention on Biological Diversity was the first agreement to take this principle and include it in the legally binding text of a treaty. The scope of activities taking place within national jurisdictions but affecting the environment of the international community is larger than previously imagined, and the earliest limitations on national sovereignty have grown accordingly.