Environmental Principles

This page is dedicated to the memory of Anthony Burnell, whose work at the Victorian EPA was marked by vision and hope.  Anthony died in a car accident in May 2001.

Jon Nevill                                                                                20 November 2000

prin'ciple n. i. Fundamental source, primary element; fundamental truth as a basis for reasoning; general law as guide to action. ii. (pl. and collect. sing.) Personal code of right conduct; on ~, from settled moral motive.

Environmental principles are the essential concepts which, explicit or implicit, underlie all environmental legislation, policies, and programs. The term is sometimes misinterpreted, and used to include modes of action, or mechanisms chosen to assist in the achievement of objectives. This misconception is not merely a matter of semantics, and should be avoided wherever possible.

The explicit statement of principles is important, particularly when preparing draft legislation, or environmental policy set at a high level of generality. This assists readers in understanding the intent of the statute or policy, and is thus an invaluable aid in interpreting the implications of the "conceptual head" as it develops and diverges into more detailed processes and programs.

Statements of principle are also important in establishing the legitimacy of international law.  The notion of legitimacy is different from legality, which concerns the legal validity of an instruction, rule or behaviour, measured against a backdrop of precedent and recognised statute. According to Franck (1990) legitimacy comprises, first “a property of a rule or rule-making institution which itself exerts a pull towards compliance on those addressed normatively” and, second, “the perception of those addressed by a rule or rule-making institution that the rule or institution has come into being and operates in accordance with generally accepted principles of right process” (Franck, TM (1990:16,19) The power of legitimacy among nations.  Oxford University Press; New York).

The following extracts and documents illustrate the way environmental principles have been stated in a variety of important agreements, or incorporated into general environmental processes.



Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment 1972

UN World Charter for Nature 1982

UN Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development 1992

UN Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests 1992

The Blair Government's (UK) ten guiding principles 2001.

UN Earth Charter 2002.  PrinciplesWebsite.

UNESCAP principles of good governance 2009

Ocean governance: extracts from key documents


Links to other major international agreements, through the UN site.
Ecolex environmental law website. Summary of key UN sources.



The InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment 1992.

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development 1992.

Water reform agenda: The National Water Quality Management Strategy: general principles 1994.

Water reform agenda: Principles relating to the establishment of property rights in water 1995.

Water reform agenda: National principles for the provision of water for ecosystems 1996.

The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity 1996.

Australian Natural Heritage Charter 1996.  See also Burra Charter.

National Forest Policy Statement 1992-95. Principles are listed in Attachment A.  See also pp8-11.

Principles of environmental impact assessment.  Summary document 1992 - 1996.

National Greenhouse Strategy 1998. (Replaced the National Greenhouse Response Strategy 1992).

Catchment Management Principles suggested by the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage (December 2000) Coordinating Catchment Management - report of the inquiry into catchment management.

Principles for the management of freshwater; ANZECC steering group on water, 2000

Principles for the management of freshwater ecosystems.  Land and Water Australia; Feb 2001.




Environmental principles underlying the environmental programs of the Victorian State Government.   Environmental Protection Agency, Victoria.  November 2000.



The Burra Charter: conservation of cultural heritage (not available from this site)

The Precautionary Principle.  Link to papers dealing with the implementation of the precautionary principle, including a paper by Justice Stein (New South Wales Land & Environment Court).

Principles underlying environmental management systems Jon Nevill 1994.

Principles of environmental impact assessment.  Summary document 1992 - 1996; Jon Nevill.

WCED experts group on environmental law: Summary of proposed legal principles for environmental protection. 1996.

Model statutory objectives and principles (natural resource management / water management) Jon Nevill, 2002.

Ocean management: principles of good governance.  Jon Nevill 2004.

The use of sustainability principles in assessing NRM program sustainability  Jon Nevill, 2002.

Natural Step Principles (international NGO site)

Hanover Principles



Ocean management principles

Equator Principles - principles of responsible banking

Green chemistry principles (Monash University Chemistry Department 2000)

Principles of architecture: the nature of order by Christopher Alexander.





Perhaps the most important principles are the principles of the heart: courage, compassion, honesty, forgiveness...    Such principles underpin actions through which all other principles are expressed.