Environmental legal principles

The EU Continuity Act of 2021 embedded four internationally recognised environmental legal principles, which had guided policy making on the environment under the EU, in Scots law.

The precautionary principle

This principle triggers policy intervention in circumstances where there are reasonable grounds for concern that an activity is causing or could cause harm, but where there is uncertainty about the probability of the risk or the degree of harm.

The precautionary principle provides a clear path of action for governments and elected officials to intervene when an activity raises urgent concerns for human health or the environment, until the full cause and effect relationships are established. In Scotland, it has underpinned action against fracking, neonicotinoids and genetically modified crops, among other applications.

The polluter pays principle

This principle stems from the commonly accepted notion that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment.

In Scotland, this important legal obligation has helped drive up the quality of our drinking water and beaches.

The rectification at source principle

This principle states that environmental damage should, to the greatest extent possible, be resolved at source. In other words, policy should tackle the root cause of the problem rather than simply tackling its consequences. For example, it means that air pollution should be tackled directly by regulating emissions from cars and other sources.

The preventive action principle

This principle supports the need to take measures to address issues today rather than allow their consequences to fester leading to higher costs and increased risk in the future. For example, this principle is critical for tackling the impacts of climate change.

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