Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Bolster legal boundaries to stay within planetary boundaries

Environmental laws are binding and enforceable tools that constrain human impacts on the environment, but how effective are they at keeping humanity away from critical planetary boundaries?

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Feedbacks between human activities (red area) and legal boundaries (yellow bands) relative to planetary boundaries (Earth).


  1. Donald, P. F. et al. Science 317, 810–813 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Chapron, G. et al. Science 346, 1517–1519 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sanderson, F. J. et al. Conserv. Lett. 9, 172–180 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Taylor, M. F. J. BioScience 55, 360–367 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Schwartz, M. W. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Systemat. 39, 279–299 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Lowell, N. & Kelly, R. P. Biol. Conserv. 196, 53–59 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Rockström, J. et al. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Steffen, W. et al. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Freyfogle, E. T. Conserv. Biol. 20, 679–680 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hilborn, R. et al. Science 314, 1266 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Ludwig, D., Hilborn, R. & Walters, C. Science 260, 17–36 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Ripple, W. J. et al. BioScience 66, 807–812 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Zhang, B. & Cao, C. Nature 517, 433–434 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Attacks on the Endangered Species Act (Center for Biological Diversity, 2016);

  15. Chapron, G. Nature 516, 289 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Vranken, J. Law Method 2, 42–62 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Meyerson, M. I. Nebraska Law Rev. 93, 547–591 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ellison, A. M. Nature 538, 141 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Empty Threat 2015: Does the Law Combat Illegal Wildlife Trade? (DLA Piper, 2015).

  20. Österblom, H. et al. PLoS ONE 10, e0127533 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Jasny, L., Waggle, J. & Fisher, D. R. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 782–786 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Farrell, J. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 92–97 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Treves, A. et al. Biol. Rev. 92, 248–270 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Sand, P. H. Canadian Yearbook Int. Law 41, 92 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Grantham, J. Nature 491, 303 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Butchart, S. H. M. et al. Science 328, 1164–1168 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Tittensor, D. P. et al. Science 346, 241–244 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Prieur, M. Non-Regression in Environmental Law (SAPIENS, 2012);

    Google Scholar 

  29. Evans, O. L. Nature 533, 26–28 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Sherwood, H. Human rights groups face global crackdown ‘not seen in a generation’. The Guardian (26 August 2015).

  31. Carothers, T. & Brechenmacher, S. Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  32. Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 Section 271 (Western Australia, 2016);

  33. Barringer, F. & Broder, J. M. Congress, in a first, removes an animal from the endangered species list. The New York Times (12 April 2011).

  34. H.R.1473 Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (US House of Representatives, 2011);

  35. H.R.1042 DELIST Act (US House of Representatives, 2011);

  36. Associated Press Indian state decides coconut trees are no longer trees but palms. The Guardian (20 January 2016).

  37. Why has Goa decided the coconut palm is no longer a tree? BBC News (28 January 2016).

  38. The Goa Preservation of Trees (Amendment) Bill (Legislative Assembly of Goa, 2016);

  39. Newcomer, E., Palladini, M. & Jones, L. Animal Law 17, 251–415 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  40. Wood, J. Env. Law Reporter 46, 10496 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  41. Favaro, B., Reynolds, J. D. & Côté, I. M. Science 337, 154 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Hutchings, J. A. & Post, J. R. Fisheries 38, 497–501 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Tollefson, J. Nature 476, 259–260 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Tollefson, J. Nature 485, 19 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Greenwald, D. Conserv. Biol. 23, 1374–1377 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Vucetich, J. A. & Nelson, M. P. Conservation, or curation? The New York Times (20 August 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  47. Final Policy on Interpretation of the Phrase “Significant Portion of Its Range” in the Endangered Species Act's Definitions of “Endangered Species” and “Threatened Species” (Federal Register, 2014);

  48. Fontant, C. Des députés veulent faciliter l'installation d’élevages de porcs en Bretagne. Le Monde (29 June 2010);

  49. Fearnside, P. M. Science 353, 746–748 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. H.R.2029 Consolidated Appropriations Act (US House of Representatives, 2016);

  51. S.855 Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act (US Senate, 2015);

  52. Struzik, E. Oh Canada: the government's broad assault on the environment. The Guardian (2 July 2012).

  53. Casselman, A. Nature (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  54. Wade, L. Science (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  55. Almeida, R. M., Lovejoy, T. E. & Roland, F. Science 353, 228 (2016).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  56. Ridl, J. & Couzens, E. Potchefstroomse Elektroniese Regsblad 13, 80–121 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  57. Reynolds, J. D., Côté, I. M. & Favaro, B. Nature 487, 171 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  58. De Wet Natuurbescherming op Hoofdlijnen (Arcardis, 2016);

  59. S.3071 A Bill to Amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to Temporarily Prohibit the Secretary of the Interior from Considering Global Climate Change as a Natural or Manmade Factor in Determining Whether a Species is a Threatened or Endangered Species, and for Other Purposes (US Senate, 2008);

  60. S.736 State, Tribal, and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act (US Senate, 2015);

  61. H.R.1668 Save Our Water Act (US House of Representatives, 2015);

  62. Forsberg, M. Skogen som Livsmiljö: en Rättsvetenskaplig Studie om Skyddet för Biologisk Mångfald PhD thesis, Uppsala Univ. (2012);

    Google Scholar 

  63. Australian Associated Press. Andrew Robb: Carmichael mine ‘skink is a patsy’ and risks India trade talks. The Guardian (12 August 2015).

  64. Clark, C. The government vs the environment: lawfare in Australia. The Conversation (18 August 2015);

  65. S.2410 Carl Levin National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (US Senate, 2014);

  66. Doyle, P. Ariz. J. Environ. Law Pol. 3, 1047–1051 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  67. Pakistan court lifts Houbara bustard hunting ban. BBC News (2016).

  68. Florens, F. B. V. Sci. Bull 58, 2262–2268 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Position Statement on the Culling of the Mauritius Fruit Bat Pteropus niger. (IUCN, 2015);

  70. Abengoa S. A. y COFIDES S. A. y Est Ados Unidos Mexicanos ICSID Case no. ARB(AF)/09/2 (2013);

  71. Tolsma, H., De Graaf, K. & Jans, J. J. Environ. Law 21, 309–321 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Darpö, J. & Epstein, Y. Nordic Environ. Law J. 2015:1 7–20 (2015);

    Google Scholar 

  73. Howard, E. Legal battles to protect the environment ‘easier to fight in China than the UK’. The Guardian (11 November 2015).

  74. Costs Protection in Environmental Claims: Proposals to Revise the Costs Capping Scheme for Eligible Environmental Challenges (Ministry of Justice, 2015);

  75. Gaworecki, M. Canadian logging company sues Greenpeace for racketeering and defamation. Mongabay (15 June 2016);

  76. Gannon, E. Wyoming criminalizes citizen science. Courthouse News Service (18 May 2015);

  77. Guo, J. Wyoming doesn't want you to know how much cow poop is in its water. The Washington Post (20 May 2015).

  78. López-Bao, J. V. et al. Biodiv. Conserv. 24, 2105–2108 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Trouwborst, A. Galemys 26, 15–30 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Radisson, L. Chasse à l'oie: Ségolène Royal envoie un mauvais signal avant la loi biodiversité. Actu-Environnement (2 February 2015);

  81. Trouwborst, A. Aussie jaws and international laws: The Australian shark cull and the convention on migratory species. Cornell International Law Journal Online (21 March 2014);

  82. H.Amdt.634 to H.R.2822 (US House of Representatives, 2015);

  83. Briefing: The New Greek National Waste Management Plan (Watson Farley & Williams, 2015);

  84. By Not Prohibiting the Uncontrolled Management of a Landfill Site in the National Marine Park of Zakinthos (Zante), Greece has Infringed European Union Environmental Legislation (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2014);

  85. Hamby, C. The secret threat that makes corporations more powerful than countries. BuzzFeed (2016);

  86. Tienhaara, K. Glob. Environ. Pol. 6, 73–100 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


G.C., Y.E. and J.V.L.B. acknowledge the support of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency to the research program Claws & Laws ( A.T. acknowledges the support of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research to the research program Ius Carnivoris (

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.C. designed the study. G.C. and Y.E. collected and analysed data. G.C., Y.E., A.T. and J.V.L.B. jointly wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Guillaume Chapron.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chapron, G., Epstein, Y., Trouwborst, A. et al. Bolster legal boundaries to stay within planetary boundaries. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0086 (2017).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing