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Big Data Enters Environmental Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2019

Claire Lajaunie
INSERM – DICE UMR7318 – International, Comparative and European Law, Aix-Marseille University, Aix en Provence (France); SCELG, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (UK). Email:
Burkhard Schafer
SCRIPT Centre for IT and IP Law, School of Law, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh (UK). Email:
Pierre Mazzega
Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Solidarités, Sociétés, Territoires (LISST) – UMR5193 CNRS, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, EHESS, ENSFEA, Toulouse (France); SCELG, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (UK). Email:


Big Data is now permeating environmental law and affecting its evolution. Data-driven innovation is highlighted as a means for major organizations to address social and global challenges. We present various contributions of Big Data technologies and show how they transform our knowledge and understanding of domains regulated by environmental law – environmental changes, socio-ecological systems, sustainable development issues – and of environmental law itself as a complex system. In particular, the mining of massive data sets makes it possible to undertake concrete actions dedicated to the elaboration, production, implementation, follow-up, and adaptation of the environmental targets defined at various levels of decision making (from the international to the subnational level).

This development calls into question the traditional approach to legal epistemology and ethics, as implementation and enforcement of rules take on new forms, such as regulation through smart environmental targets and securing legal compliance through the design of technological artefacts. The entry of Big Data therefore requires the development of a new and specific epistemology of environmental law.

Symposium Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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This contribution is part of a collection of articles growing out of the conference ‘Global Environmental Law’, held at the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG), University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (United Kingdom (UK)), 4–5 Sept. 2017.

We thank Elisa Morgera and Francesco Sindico for the invitation to join the conference ‘Global Environmental Law’, and for the invitation to participate in this Symposium Collection. We are grateful to the two TEL referees for their valuable suggestions, which greatly improved this paper.


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39 The choice of these objectives is explained in the report: ibid.

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41 See, e.g., S.L. Maxwell et al., ‘Being Smart about SMART Environmental Targets’ (2015) 347(6226) Science, pp. 1075–6 (‘International signatories readily agree on targets that are ambiguous in definition because a level of increase or reduction required to meet the target is not clearly specified’ and ‘what is practicable is not defined’, which constitutes a real issue for its implementation at the national level).

42 As sharply pointed out by Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, ‘[n]o longer can the law barricade itself against other disciplines – and if this is true for law in general, environmental law is arguably the most prominent example of such a change. There is no longer a clear-cut boundary between environmental law and, say, science’: A. Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Law and Ecology: New Environmental Foundations (Routledge, 2011), p. 5. For the various decision-making levels, see International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ‘World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law’, IUCN World Congress on Environmental Law, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 26–29 Apr. 2016, III, available at: (‘Effective implementation is fundamental to achieving the environmental rule of law’. It relies on ‘[m]echanisms to add procedural strength and help build the procedural and substantive components of the environmental rule of law at national, sub-national, regional, and international levels’).

43 CBD Secretariat, ‘Quick Guidelines to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets’, Feb. 2013, available at:

44 S.M. Hagerman & R. Pelai, ‘“As Far as Possible and as Appropriate”: Implementing the Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ (2016) 9(6) Conservation Letters, pp. 469–78.

45 Policymakers or science-policy interface are rarely defined; nevertheless, there is a wide range of policymakers depending on the level of decision examined. The point should also be questioned.

46 See Campbell, Hagerman & Gray, n. 36 above.

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48 Campbell, Hagerman & Gray, n. 36 above.

49 S.H.M. Butchart, M. Di Marco & J.E.M. Watson, ‘Formulating Smart Commitments on Biodiversity: Lessons from the Aichi Targets’ (2016) 9(6) Conservation Letters, pp 457–68, at 458.

50 D.P. Tittensor et al., ‘A Mid-Term Analysis of Progress toward International Biodiversity Targets’ (2014) 346(6206) Science, pp. 241-4.

51 CBD COP-6, Decision VI/26, ‘Strategic Plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity’.

52 Campbell, Hagerman & Gray, n. 36 above; Butchart, Di Marco & Watson, n. 49 above.

53 See Maxwell et al., n. 41 above.

54 In the context of the implementation of One Health approaches to environmental, human and animal health see, e.g., P. Mazzega & C. Lajaunie, ‘Modelling Organisation Networks Collaborating on Health and Environment within ASEAN’, in R.S. Martinez (ed.), Complex Systems: Theory and Applications (Nova, 2017), pp. 117–48.

55 J. McEldowney & S. McEldowney, ‘Science and Environmental Law: Collaboration across the Double Helix’ (2011) 13(3) Environmental Law Review, pp. 169–98.

56 A.F. Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science? An Assessment of the Nature and Status of Science and Its Methods, 2nd edn (University of Queensland Press, 1982).

57 M. Chein & M.-L. Mugnier, Graph-based Knowledge Representation (Springer, 2009), p. 427; S. Katalnikova & L. Novickis, ‘Choice of Knowledge Representation Model for Development of Knowledge Base: Possible Solutions’ (2018) 9(2) International Journal of Advanced Computer Science & Applications, pp. 358–63.

58 Science-Metrix: D. Campbell et al., ‘Data Mining: Knowledge and Technology Flows in Priority Domains within the Private Sector and between the Public and Private Sectors’, European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Directorate A – Policy Development and Coordination, Specific Contract No. 30-CE-0677881/00-67, Feb. 2017, available at:

59 T. Balke & N. Gilbert, ‘How Do Agents Make Decisions? A Survey’ (2014) 17(4) Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation online articles, p. 13, available at:

60 H. Aldewereld et al. (eds), Social Coordination Frameworks for Social Technical Systems (Springer, 2016); X.A. Ghose et al. (eds), Coordination, Organizations, Institutions, and Norms in Agent Systems. LNAI 9372 (Springer, 2014); M. Janssen, M.A. Wimmer & A. Deljoo (eds), Policy Practice and Digital Science (Springer, 2015).

61 See, e.g., International Social Science Council (ISSC) and UNESCO, World Social Science Report 2013: Changing Global Environments (OECD and UNESCO, 2013), pp. 22 et seq.

62 L. Lessig, Code: Version 2.0 (Basic Books, Perseus Group, 2006), p. 4.

63 McEldowney & McEldowney, n. 55 above, p. 189.

64 Conseil d'Etat, Rapport public 2006: Jurisprudence et avis de 2005 – Sécurité juridique et complexité du droit, Etudes et documents No. 57 (Conseil d'Etat Paris, 2006).

65 R.A. Epstein, Simple Rules for a Complex World (Harvard University Press, 1995).

66 P. Schuck, ‘Legal Complexity: Some Causes, Consequences, and Cures’ (1992) 42(1) Duke Law Journal, pp. 1–52.

67 P. Casanovas et al. (eds), AI Approaches to the Complexity of Legal Systems: Complex Systems, the Semantic Web, Ontologies, Argumentation and Dialogue (Springer, 2009).

68 N. Bobbio, L’étà dei diritti (G. Einaudi ed., Torina 1997), pp. xiii–xv.

69 This type of right would probably be included by Bobbio (ibid., p. xiv) into the ‘fourth generation rights’ together with rights induced by uses of genetic heritage of ‘each specific individual’.

70 European Parliament, ‘Report with Recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics’, 2015/2103(INL), 27 Jan. 2017.

71 K. Kittichaisaree, Public International Law of Cyberspace (Springer, 2017).

72 D. Bourcier & P. Mazzega, ‘Toward Measures of Legal Complexity in Legal Systems’ in Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law, Stanford, CA (US), 4–8 June 2007, pp. 211–15, available at:

73 In a complex system, a same cause may have different effects depending on the state of the system, and the kind of causality link. The predictability of the changes is limited to a finite horizon of prediction intrinsic to the system dynamic.

74 J.B. Ruhl & D.M. Katz, ‘Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Legal Complexity’ (2015) 101 Iowa Law Review, pp. 191–244.

75 P. Mazzega, D. Bourcier & R. Boulet, ‘The Network of French Legal Codes’, Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law, Barcelona (Spain), 8–12 June 2009, pp. 236–37, available at:; D.M. Katz & M. Bommarito, ‘Measuring the Complexity of the Law: The United States Code’ (2014) 22(4) Artificial Intelligence and Law, pp. 337–74.

76 Casanovas et al., n. 67 above; G. Sartor et al. (eds), Approaches to Legal Ontologies (Springer, 2011).

77 J.H. Fowler et al., ‘Network Analysis and the Law: Measuring the Legal Importance of Precedents at the U.S. Supreme Court’ (2007) 15(3) Political Analysis, pp. 324–46.

78 R. Boulet, A.F. Barros-Platiau & P. Mazzega, ‘35 Years of Multilateral Environmental Agreements Ratification: A Network Analysis’ (2016) 24(2) Artificial Intelligence and Law, pp. 133–48; R. Boulet, A.F. Barros-Platiau & P. Mazzega, ‘Environmental and Trade Regimes: Comparison of Hypergraphs Modelling the Ratifications of UN Multilateral Treaties’, in R. Boulet, C. Lajaunie & P. Mazzega (eds), Law, Public Policies and Complex Systems: Networks in Action (Springer, 2019), pp. 221–42.

79 The role of the IPCC is to assess the thousands of scientific papers published each year to inform policymakers about the risks related to climate change. It thus identifies where there is agreement in the scientific community, where there are differences of opinion, and where further research is needed, available at:

80 IPCC, ‘Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work: Procedures for the Preparation, Review, Acceptance, Adoption, Approval and Publication of IPCC Reports’, Oct. 2013, para. 4.3.4, available at:

81 J.C. Minx et al., ‘Learning about Climate Change Solutions in the IPCC and Beyond’ (2017) 77(C) Environmental Science & Policy, pp. 252–9.

82 The relevant literature to be reviewed for the IPCC's sixth assessment will include between 270,000 and 330,000 publications. This is larger than the entire climate change literature before 2014. Cf Minx et al., n. 81 above.

83 The consultation of contributions to the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, for example, gives an overview of the topics discussed and the progress made, available at:

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85 This was partly because the available computational capacity meant that the scenarios that were analyzed remained on the level of ‘toy examples’ or thought experiments, heavily simplified to test specific hypotheses about the way in which external incentives, disincentives and individual planning interact.

86 So, canonically, T.J. Bench-Capon & F.P. Coenen, ‘Isomorphism and Legal Knowledge-based Systems’ (1992) 1(1) Artificial Intelligence and Law, pp. 65–86.

87 A classic example from that time: see M.J. Sergot et al., ‘The British Nationality Act as a Logic Program’ (1986) 29(5) Communications of the ACM, pp. 370–86 (e.g., a set of rules that determine if someone is eligible for citizenship).

88 For a discussion of the problems of legislative intervention in networked, complex environments see, e.g., A.Guadamuz-González, ‘Scale-Free Law: Network Science and Copyright’ (2006) 70 Albany Law Review, pp. 1297–322.

89 J. Zeleznikow, A. Stranieri & M. Gawler, ‘Project Report: Split-Up – A Legal Expert System which Determines Property Division upon Divorce’ (1995) 3(4) Artificial Intelligence and Law, pp. 267–75.

90 S. Danziger, J. Levav & L. Avnaim-Pesso, ‘Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions’ (2011) 108(17) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pp. 6889–92.

91 L. Lessig, ‘Law Regulating Code Regulating Law’ (2003) 35(1) Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, pp. 1–14.

92 M. Hildebrandt & B.J. Koops, ‘The Challenges of Ambient Law and Legal Protection in the Profiling Era’ (2010) 73(3) The Modern Law Review, pp. 428–60.

93 C. Devins et al., ‘The Law and Big Data’ (2017) 27(3) Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, pp. 357–413, at 357.

94 J.R. Gil-Garcia, ‘Towards a Smart State? Inter-Agency Collaboration, Information Integration, and Beyond’ (2012) 17(3) Information Polity, pp. 269–80, at 276; W.B. Boyd, ‘Environmental Law, Big Data, and the Torrent of Singularities’ (2016) 64 UCLA Law Review, pp. 544–70, at 544.

95 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (United Nations and Oxford University Press, 1987) (Brundtland Report), p. 330.

96 With the creation respectively of the Joint Liaison Group and of the Biodiversity Liaison Group.

97 UN Environment, Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface: A Gap Analysis (UNEP, 2017).

98 In modelling language, an instance is ‘a concrete manifestation of an abstraction’: J. Booch, J. Rumbaugh & I. Jacobson, The Unified Modelling Language User Guide, 2nd edn (Addison-Wesley, 2005). Instantiation is the process of associating such concrete manifestation (e.g., specific targets for a particular context, a set of empirical data, etc.) with the abstraction (e.g., the generally defined target, the corresponding general type of data, etc.).

99 When it comes to the implementation of generic international norms into national law, the environmental or ecological context should be taken into account. For instance, in the case of Good Environmental Status in the European Union (EU), ‘descriptors’ are detailed to help Member States in implementing a Directive, as in the case of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive adopted on 17 June 2008 (Directive 2008/56/EC establishing a Framework for Community Action in the Field of Marine Environmental Policy, [2008] OJ L 164/19). The European Commission has also produced a set of detailed criteria and methodological standards to help Member States, which have been modified by Commission Decision (EU) 2017/848 of 17 May 2017, [2017] OJ L 125/43. Interestingly, preambular para. 20 of the Decision states: ‘Criteria, including threshold values, methodological standards, specifications and standardised methods for monitoring and assessment should be based on the best available science. However, additional scientific and technical progress is still required to support the further development of some of them, and should be used as the knowledge and understanding become available’. The European Commission translates the generic character of the norm into criteria which help to instantiate the norm at the national level according to the specific socio-ecological context.

100 Lajaunie, S. Morand & C., Biodiversity and Health: Linking Life, Ecosystems and Societies (Elsevier ISTE Press, 2017)Google Scholar, Ch. 13 ‘The Role of Law, Justice and Scientific Knowledge in Health and Biodiversity’, pp. 209–18.

101 See Campbell, Hagerman & Gray, n. 36 above.

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103 UN Environment, n. 97 above.

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105 For environmental knowledge as well as legal knowledge see the analysis of general knowledge versus particular knowledge and the way to apply a rule of ‘local and situated knowledge’ in settings that are mutable, undetermined (some facts are unknown), and particular: see Scott, J.C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 311–21Google Scholar.

106 Tuana, N., ‘Leading with Ethics, Aiming for Policy: New Opportunities for Philosophy of Science’ (2010) 177(3) Synthese, pp. 471–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, available at: For a study of the ethical side of interdisciplinary research on the environment cf. C. Lajaunie & P. Mazzega (invited eds), ‘The Ethics of Biodiversity Conservation’ (2018) 10(4) Asian Bioethics Review, Special Issue.

107 Hildebrandt & Koops, n. 92 above, p. 428. See also Leenes, R., ‘Framing Techno-Regulation: An Exploration of State and Non-State Regulation by Technology’ (2011) 5(2) Legisprudence, pp. 143–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

108 Koops, B.J., ‘Law, Technology, and Shifting Power Relations’ (2010) 25(2) Berkeley Technology Law Journal, pp. 9731035Google Scholar; Hildebrandt, M., ‘Legal Protection by Design: Objections and Refutations’ (2011) 5(2) Legisprudence, pp. 223–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 See, in particular, Wahlgren, P. (ed.), A Proactive Approach (Stockholm Institute for Scandinavian Law, 2006)Google Scholar; H. Haapio (ed.), A Proactive Approach to Contracting and Law (International Association for Contract and Commercial Management and Turku University of Applied Sciences, 2008).

110 Preliminary Draft Opinion dated 14 May 2008 of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on ‘The Proactive Law Approach: A Further Step towards Better Regulation at EU Level’, EESC INT/415.

111 Shrivastava, G. Berger-Walliser & P., ‘Beyond Compliance: Sustainable Development, Business, and Proactive Law’ (2014) 46 Georgetown Journal of International Law, pp. 417–74Google Scholar.

112 For examples see, e.g., Winkels, R. & Boer, A., ‘Finding and Visualizing Dutch Legislative Context Networks’ (2014) 3 Diritto, Scienza, Tecnologia, pp. 157–82Google Scholar; Boulet, R., Mazzega, P. & Bourcier, D., ‘Network Approach to the French System of Legal Codes, Part II: The Role of the Weights in a Network’ (2018) 26(1) Artificial Intelligence and Law, pp. 2347CrossRefGoogle Scholar.