Compliance: an Aerial View Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Compliance: an Aerial View

By Anna Stockamore, Staff Contributor

One of the most challenging issues in international environmental law today is ensuring compliance with environmental treaties and implementing regulations.  Compliance refers to “whether countries in fact adhere to the provisions of the accord and to the implementing measures that they have instituted.”[1]  Although a state may have consented to and signed an environmental treaty, other factors may inhibit the state’s compliance with the regulations attendant to the treaty.  States may join environmental agreements as a result of inducements from other governments or domestic sources.[2]   States may also sign treaties without the intention of significantly modifying their behavior, or may find that they lack the ability to comply or to enforce the necessary regulations domestically.[3] 

Parties rarely use sanctions or adjudication to punish others for such noncompliance.[4]  Occasionally, economic sanctions are implemented; however, such sanctions may violate trade agreements in place between or among the parties.[5]  Additionally, measuring compliance is often difficult: monitoring the regulated activity can be challenging and the method of detection can often be highly intrusive and costly.[6]  As international law further develops and information technology improves, non-state actors are becoming pivotal not only in the formation of binding and nonbinding environmental agreements, but also in promoting and assessing compliance.[7]

One new method of detection and compliance measurement is the use of Google Earth.[8]  Scientists at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) have been using Google Earth’s image technology to zoom in on projects around the world and to assess environmental damage resulting from them.[9]  The aerial views “make it possible for ELAW staff to tour proposed development sites and provide environmental analysis, without costly travel and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.”[10]  ELAW’s scientists are able to monitor a myriad of projects, from a private airport site in Kerala, India to hydropower projects in Veracruz, Mexico.[11]

Many of these projects issue environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that misrepresent the site’s potential damage to the environment.[12]  For instance, the developers of a proposed limestone mine in Himachal Pradesh, India claimed that the site had negligible vegetation, when it was in fact covered by dense forests.[13]  Meanwhile, developers of a proposed landfill site in the Philippines failed to mention that mangroves, essential to shoreline protection, would have to be removed for their project to go forward.[14]  ELAW compares the geographic coordinates and claims made within the developers’ EIAs with images from Google Earth.  This allows ELAW to litigate projects by demonstrating the inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the EIAs.[15]

The use of information technology to measure and enforce compliance presents exciting opportunities.  In particular, technology such as Google Earth will help decrease the costs of monitoring and increase the ability for accurate environmental assessments in remote areas around the world.



[1] Engaging Countries: Strengthening Compliance with International Environmental Accords 4 (Edith Brown Weiss & Harold K. Jacobson eds., 1998).
[2] Id. at 2.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 3.
[6] See id. at 6.
[7] Id.
[8] See Camilla Mortensen, Google Environment: Using technology to save the Earth, Eugene Weekly (October 16, 2014, 12:00 AM),; Google Earth for Justice, ELAW Advoc. (Envtl. L. Alliance Worldwide, Eugene, Or.), Summer 2014, at 1, available at
[9] Mortensen, supra note 8.
[10] Google Earth for Justice, supra note 8, at 1.
[11] Id.
[12] Mortensen, supra note 8.
[13] Google Earth for Justice, supra note 8, at 1.
[14] Id.
[15] Mortensen, supra note 8.