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“It is an indispensable instrument”

“It is an indispensable instrument”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archief Observant

The 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands

Can the law protect the environment?

“The law is undoubtedly necessary to protect the environment,” says Marjan Peeters, professor holding the chair of Environmental Policy and Law. But there are quite a few factors that hinder effective environmental law. “Environmental law is a very complex field. It covers many different environmental issues. There are also various ways in which the behaviour of citizens and businesses can be regulated. The key question is how to go about it. A lot of research is being done on this.”

Another factor to consider is that environmental law is continually developing. “There are new issues all the time. Take renewable energy; it is very important to stimulate this through the law. But we cannot ignore possible negative aspects. Windmills, for example, can be a threat to migrating birds. A precedent is now being set for this. There was a lawsuit in Italy recently about the prohibition of windmills in nature reserves. The question was whether this prohibition will stand up in court.” There is also a lot of uncertainty with regard to environmental problems. “When is something harmful? If one suspects that it may be harmful, without knowing for sure, and government allows it anyway, should the court then be able to order a prohibition?”

The KNAW points out that international environmental law is fragmented. “This also applies to national and European law. It is a bottleneck. How can you make law as integrated as possible? That is what we are learning.” She thinks that a completely integrated legislation is a utopia. The subject matter is too complex and too extensive for that. “It goes beyond human understanding. Take current European climate legislation, for example. That is such an enormous package of measures that there is probably no-one who knows them all. It is moreover very difficult to understand the interplay between the several established regulatory instruments”.”

Peeters thinks that changing laws time and again is not a solution. “Then everyone has to get used to the new structure again. More attention should be paid to the existing laws and how we can implement them better. Enforcement is very important.”

According to Peeters, the law is an important instrument in protecting the environment, but not the only one. “Economic prosperity in a country is a determining factor. When there is more prosperity, more can be invested in environmentally friendly solutions. A developing country focuses first on growth. The standards and values of a country also play a role. How important is the environment to people? Ultimately it is the politicians who make the laws and negotiate treaties.”


Cleo Freriks

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has listed the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. The 50th is the result of a competition, which was won by two UM researchers.



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