Evolution of International Environmental Law: From Silent Spring to Global Agreements


At the dawn of the 20th century, global environmental concerns were far from the international agenda. The concept of the environment as an interconnected ecological system or the biosphere as a planetary life support system was not yet part of international discourse. However, in the following decades, a series of events and publications, including Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring” in 1962, set the stage for the emergence of the modern environmental movement.

This blog post traces the historical development of international environmental law and explores key milestones and agreements that have shaped the field.

Early Initiatives (1867-1902): Protecting Birds and Fishes

  • 1867 Fisheries Convention: This early international agreement was signed between England and France, primarily focused on fisheries.
  • 1884 International Ornithological Congress: Switzerland’s proposal for an international regulatory commission to protect birds led to the formation of this congress, also known as the International Ornithologists’ Union.
  • 1902 Convention to Protect Birds Useful to Agriculture: This convention granted protection to specific bird species, prohibiting their capture and killing. It marked an early step toward international environmental conservation efforts.

Environmental Developments (1909-1945): Pollution and Preservation

  • 1909 Water Boundaries Treaty: The United States and Canada signed this treaty to prevent and control water pollution, highlighting the issue of cross-border environmental impacts.
  • 1922 International Committee for the Preservation of Birds: This initiative involved the United States and European countries and emphasized transboundary coordination in preserving bird species.
  • 1933 Convention on Preservation of Flora and Fauna: Aimed at conserving African flora and fauna, this convention established measures for national parks, hunting regulation, and the preservation of forests.

However, this period lacked institutional arrangements for administering and enforcing environmental provisions.

Post-World War II Developments (1945 Onwards): Transboundary Injuries and Global Agreements

  • Transboundary Injuries Concept: The Corfu Channel Case (1949) between the UK and Albania brought attention to transboundary injuries caused by mines in territorial waters, impacting international navigation.
  • 1954 International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil: This agreement addressed oil pollution in the seas, reflecting growing global concern for environmental protection.
  • 1968 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources: This convention focused on conserving Africa’s natural resources and biodiversity.
  • 1970 OECD Committee for Environment: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) established a committee dedicated to environmental matters.
  • 1971 Convention on International Liability for Damages Caused by Space Objects: This agreement addressed liability for damages caused by space objects, extending environmental responsibility to outer space.

Sources of International Environmental Law

  • Customary International Law: This source includes established practices and principles among nations, such as the duty to warn about environmental damages and principles like intergenerational equity and the polluter pays principle.
  • Judicial Decisions: International Court of Justice (ICJ) decisions, such as the Trail Smelter Arbitration and Lake Lanoux Arbitration, have set important precedents in international environmental law.
  • Stockholm Declaration (1972): The 1972 Stockholm Conference established 26 principles, emphasizing sustainable development, renewable resources, and the responsibility to protect wildlife and habitats.
  • Treaties, Protocols, and Conventions: Numerous international agreements, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Paris Agreement, form the backbone of international environmental law.


From the publication of “Silent Spring” to the signing of global agreements like the Paris Agreement, the evolution of international environmental law reflects humanity’s growing awareness of the need for environmental protection and sustainable practices. Today, this field continues to evolve as nations cooperate to address the pressing environmental challenges of our time.

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