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Dr Rebecca Nelson
Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

Cumulative effects are noted globally to be a key problem for the environment, sustainable development, and environmental law. Many profound environmental problems are accompanied by failures effectively to regulate multitudinous small harms that aggregate to become significant—from air pollution, to over-consumption of water, to incremental damage to biodiverse forests. These types of harms fall outside the typical context of project-based environmental impact assessment, in which cumulative environmental effects are explicitly considered. Globally, relatively little legal scholarship has focused on the conceptual foundations of approaches to regulating cumulative environmental effects outside this typical context. Part of a larger project seeking to produce best practice principles for regulating cumulative environmental effects, this paper focuses on one aspect of these conceptual foundations: the relationship between concepts of cumulative environmental effects and distributive environmental justice. This paper explores these links using the case of air pollution, an established focus for environmental justice analysis. Cumulative effects in this context can be complex, involving small and numerous sources (eg those associated with transport), both indoor and outdoor air pollution, ‘natural’ causes (eg wildfires, dust storms) that can cross jurisdictional boundaries and vulnerabilities as a result of mountainous topography. Building on earlier work focused on environmental impact assessments in Los Angeles county, this paper analyses and compares how concepts of distributive environmental justice embody cumulative effects in the context of air pollution in the social scientific and legal scholarship, laws and implementation of laws in diverse case study jurisdictions: Chile, USA (California), and Australia (Victoria).

Rebecca Nelson is a Senior Lecturer of the Melbourne Law School. Her research focuses on environmental and natural resources law and policy, with an emphasis on empirical research and practical solutions. Dr Nelson holds an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (2018-2021), which aims to analyse and evaluate laws regulating cumulative environmental effects in the context of environmental impact assessment and natural resources more broadly around the world. From 2010-2014, she led the Comparative Groundwater Law and Policy Program, a collaborative initiative between Water in the West at Stanford University and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. In 2014 she was named the Law Council of Australia’s Young Environmental Lawyer of the Year for her contribution to water law and environmental law. Dr Nelson holds a Doctor of the Science of Law (Stanford), Masters of the Science of Law (Stanford) and Bachelor of Engineering (Environmental)/LLB (Melbourne).

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