I have recently read that in the European Union where I live, plastic in biowaste is a huge concern because when supermarkets get rid of fruits and vegetables which are packed in plastic it is "too expensive" to remove the plastic from the vegetables. The biowaste (including plastic) will then be shredded and then turned into compost which is used on the field as a fertilizer. Obviously we then have huge amounts of plastic on our fields which will be degraded to microplastic and can enter our foodchain.

This - mildly expressed - catastrophic failure of politics to solve an arguably very simple problem got me thinking.

Why is it not possible to agree on certain environmental fundamentals - i.e. under no circumstances should plastic be allowed to enter the environment in a "legal" way? In analogy to the declaration of human rights (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Convention_on_Human_Rights) the correct approach would be to determine certain environmental fundamentals which cannot be changed. On a legal basis "environmental fundamentals" should be treated similarly to human rights because without the environment humans will not survive.

My questions are:

What are the problems which would arise if we pass non-negotiable environmental laws similarly to human rights?

Have there been any efforts in this direction?

News broadcast in German.

Original article by Nature.

  • 2
    Human rights were also achieved by consensus, not necessarily by a unanimous majority. I'm not sure how the environmental rules you talk of differ from other laws. Other laws have opposition too, yet when they are passed they apply to those who opposed it as well, until such time that the law is repealed (by some qualified majority).
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 18:46
  • 1
    Please try to clarify that in your question. Especially explain what you mean by non-negotiable. Depending on the country that might be hard of course, how can you make a law and then say it cannot be repealed by the body that created it? In most cases, that would require a constitutional change, I think, the exact rules of which vary per country.
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 18:58
  • 2
    It's still not clear to me why you compare it to human rights. Do you mean that there is some authority that assess whether new laws are in accordance with human rights? If so, by what virtue is that assessment done? I'd guess that'd be some constitutional requirement. If that is what you mean, then such framework would have to be put in place for environmental regulations as well. Why and how that can be achieved seems better suited country-specific or are you asking if that can be done through the EU, if so in what way?
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 19:15
  • 1
    I compare it to human rights because these rights are non-negotiable. Similar protection should be for environmental laws which are passed. "Do you mean that there is some authority that assess whether new laws are in accordance with human rights?" Yes at least in the EU you cannot pass laws which violate human rights. Jul 24, 2019 at 19:17
  • 1
    If you are referring to the ECHR, and I should point out I'm not a lawyer, it seems to me that those rights are just part of national law, agreed upon by a lot of countries. In that sense, I think a country could withdraw from the EHCR (and be kicked out of the EU and more probably) as part of its sovereignty. I don't see how it's different from countries drafting their own laws, possibly together, on climate. And that seems to be what the climate agreements are about. Please clarify if I didn't understand correctly.
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 19:26

1 Answer 1


Human rights are fundamentally different from environmental policy in an important way.


To keep the environment well, you need to have all countries on board. If one big industrial country doesn't go on board, then it will have an advantage. That country can make products cheaper and may even attract companies because of it.

Furthermore, if many large companies just move to those countries, the net effect on the environment is nonexistent (at least for those emissions) except the countries that do take part lose business. Indeed, whether I pollute the air in Germany or in France doesn't matter much, we all share the same air (and other things to some degree as well).

Human rights

Rights applying to individuals are fundamentally different. If Germany treats its citizens well with lots of protections then that's good for them regardless of what other countries do. Germany doesn't lose out as much (assuming the rights are pretty basic and not a big burden on business or citizens).

In particular, the rights that Germany guarantees directly benefits its own citizens. Therefore, Germany (or rather its population, which goes hand in hand because it's a democracy) has a good incentive for setting basic human rights just for that reason.

What is similar

Of course, in both cases it's best to work together as countries, as in a scenario where everyone works together the total gain is the highest.

In game theory, these can be seen as Nash equilibria. Let's say (very simplified) that every country can either choose to participate for the common good or not. Then there is such an equilibrium if and only if there is no country that gets in a better position by unilaterally changing its choice regardless of the others.

In case of human rights, countries that value them can participate without losing anything significant (again, roughly, in reality there may be more considerations). Countries that don't value them simply don't participate and don't lose much either.

In case of the environment, there are important reasons not to participate. Indeed, by not participating their businesses can make more profit. I think most of the reasons for not participating (or not being as ambitious as one might want to be / is needed) and they are mostly economical for the benefit of those countries.

Dr Peter John Wood of the Australian National University has some nice slides on climate change participation from a game theory perspective. If you search, especially using Google Scholar, I'm sure you can find more examples of game theory applied to international cooperation, both on the environment and more local issues like human rights or otherwise local cooperation.

  • 1
    I can see your point about the fundamental difference between human rights and environmental rights. I have to look into your last link in detail, it seems very theoretical. Do you see any way to incentivize the ratification of a hypothetical environmental law? Jul 24, 2019 at 21:53
  • @CuriousIndeed no, but there will certainly be more treaties like the Paris Agreement. And those in turn have to implemented in some way by national governments. In this case, I think countries have some leeway in how they approach it, with more general goals set on carbon emissions.
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 21:58
  • @CuriousIndeed and as for the EU, it's already banning certain single-use plastics.
    – JJJ
    Jul 24, 2019 at 21:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .