Most modern-day environmental issues are caused by the complex aggregation and interaction of numerous actions contributing to large-scale problems, from biodiversity loss to climate change. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) consider how projects contribute to these cumulative environmental problems. This article firstly evaluates the theoretical importance of cumulative effects concepts for EIA. It reveals their potential to spotlight values embedded in decision making and to illuminate, as a lighthouse would, types of harm from broad-ranging, typically unregulated, activities. A large-scale global survey of national EIA laws and multilateral environmental agreements then shows that cumulative effects concepts are legally relevant for most national EIA frameworks. This prevalence suggests that better implementation of cumulative effects provisions may help EIA law to deliver more significant benefits than previously appreciated. Evaluating a sample of EIA provisions shows that cumulative effects concepts can contribute to different stages of an EIA, but that using these concepts across all EIA stages would maximize their potential to achieve the theoretical benefits identified. From theoretical and practical legal perspectives, cumulative effects concepts have significant latent potential – perhaps transformational potential – to address cumulative environmental change through EIA regimes at national and international levels. However, without better implementation, the latent potential of these laws to address cumulative environmental problems is likely to remain unrealized. By shedding light on the extent of national and international legal frameworks that adopt cumulative effects concepts, and their differences, this article highlights the significant learning potential between legal regimes to aid improved implementation.