Environmental Law

Section 1: The Environment at Risk

It would be pretty hard to live in Canada today without being aware of the importance of environmental issues. You may be involved in programs aimed at protecting the environment-perhaps by recycling things like cans and newspapers. But even if you're not, chances are you're concerned about the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. You're likely also concerned about what our environment will be like for future generations.
This section will help you learn more about environmental issues by introducing you to some of the legal aspects of those issues. When you've finished the section, you should be able to identify different areas of environmental concern, explain traditional legal methods of dealing with environmental disputes, and describe the effects of several court decisions on environmental law.

Lesson 1: Environmental Hazards

The Environmental Crisis

You have been brought up in a society where many of us are very much concerned about the damage we're doing to the world in which we live. Our modern lifestyle, dependent on massive amounts of energy and other resources, driven by high consumer demand, and based on the idea that the economy must keep on expanding, has placed a tremendous amount of stress on our environment. 

We have come to realize that the world isn't a source of limitless resources. We've also come to realize that the ability of the environment to recover from the pollutants we constantly pump into it also has its limits — and we are clearly bumping up against them. 

Ironically, despite this awareness, some seem to go right on treating the world the same way, as though there is no problem. 

To make matters worse, many of the poorer countries of the world, which traditionally have contributed relatively little to environmental concerns, are quickly catching up to western societies in consumption and pollution levels. Now that more and more people in highly populated countries, like China, are driving cars, throwing out disposable products, and living a lifestyle based on higher and higher consumption, the Earth's physical ability to cope will almost certainly be pushed beyond its capabilities.

Areas of Concern

Clearly our environment is at risk in many ways. Whether it's over fishing, polluting rivers with industrial wastes, creating a hole in the Earth's ozone layer with airborne chemicals, or raising global temperatures with "greenhouse gases," humanity seems hard at work destroying its very home. None of this is new to you, but it's impossible to over stress its importance if people are to have a decent quality of life in generations to come.

Before going on, take a few minutes and try to list as many environmental problems as you can think of. If you are working with a friend, you can brainstorm ideas together. See how many you can come up with.

Sustainable Development
Sustainable development
is the term used for the idea of using natural resources in such a way as to meet the needs of today's society while conserving them for use by future generations. A logging company, that harvests trees selectively and plants new ones to replace those it takes, is practicing sustainable development. A company that clear-cuts a forest and abandons it, is not.


Rainforests are sometimes called the "lungs of the world" because they absorb so much carbon dioxide and release so much oxygen. As these forests are destroyed for their wood and to make way for farms and towns, this function is damaged and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is potentially increased. The destruction of the rainforest is also robbing many of the world's plant and animal species of their only home.

The Greenhouse Effect

The Greenhouse Effect is the term often used to describe the trapping of heat in the atmosphere by the buildup of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is produced chiefly by burning fossil fuels, but the greenhouse effect is aggravated by such activities as raising livestock, which produces great amounts of methane, and the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon) in things like refrigerators, air conditioners, and aerosol sprays. (In recent years, however, the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon) has decreased dramatically due to stiffer controls.) As the Earth warms up, sea levels could rise (as polar icecaps melt), flooding coastal areas. Weather patterns would also likely be affected; many areas that today are productive farmlands could become deserts.