Significant developments in environmental law can be traced back to the 1800s; and dealt largely with public health concerns initially. Only since the 1970s however, has ‘environmental law’ as a separate concept formed to tackle the objective of ‘sustainable development’. Common law too has played an equally vital part in between these developments. Indeed, the purpose of environmental laws from 1800s to present has shifted.
This shift in purpose shall be discussed, but firstly, taking into considerations the definitions of ‘purpose’, ‘environment’, and‘law’ ; the question shall be interpreted to ask – what the intention of the values are in law and policy,concerning the air, land, and water. Victorianenvironmental law reflected very muchthe concerns of ‘nuisances’ to public health. Industrialisation only accentuated these concerns within popular values and provisions were taken to intentionally rid the people of such ‘nuisance’. An early example of this creeping concern is the Factories Act 1833.
Victorians had mere appreciation of‘nuisance’. What would be considered as pollution in modern perspective was seen as an indicator of prosperity in Victorian Britain.  Nevertheless, public health concerns materialised in environmental ‘nuisance’ law. To illustrate, the Smoke Abatement (Metropolitan) Act 1853provided for the control of the nuisances from smokes and vapours in the air – dangerous to human health. Similarly, the Alkali Act 1863 intended to place regulation on the condensing of corrosive Muriatic Acid in Alkali Factories – dangerous to public health; so as to limit its ‘nuisance’ to the public.
Therefore, Victorian environmental law, despite being slow to recognise environmental significance, intended to limit the damage of these ‘nuisances’; more to the public that to the environment per se. Later, in common law, ‘mere nuisance’ transformed to actual concern for the environment itself. There was a change of opinion from tackling pollution that was already present, to trying to prevent the emergence of any new sources in the first place. As an example,the English Law, House of Lords case Rylands v Fletcherwill be examined.
In this case it was established that if a man’s nuisances spread to another’s land, he would be strictly liable for the damage caused to the others land. Thus, these preventative measures established precedent to control citizens from creating new pollution through fear of civil action. In addition to this,the later House of Lords case of Hunter v Canary Wharf Limited followed the ‘Rylands rule’ in that ‘nuisance’ (or pollution) would have legal causation to land damage only. Apparently so, this controlling intention in common law protected the environment from damage but was perhaps somewhat unfair to the private citizen in some cases.
To illustrate this, if a man had suffered loss as a result of harm caused by another nuisance he would be unlikely to receive damages for example his property as in Canadian High Court case of Bottoni v Henderson. Later, statutory reform wouldbe needed to proportionate and protect both environmental, as well as private interest.  Therefore, the purpose of environmental law developed to protective the environment more than the public as it once did in the past; despite perhaps being disproportionate in some circumstances.
In post-war Britain this intention to protect the environmentcontinuesbut, particularly after 1972 toward the principle of ‘sustainable development’;as defined by the Bruntland Report of 1987.  It is arguably the main purpose of environmental law today. Perhaps an unsubstantiated claim, it has been argued that the principle in fact ‘…plac[es] human… interests above… environmental protection’;overlooking that it intends tolimit the impact of human population on world ecosystems.
 The Brundtland report has been criticised to say that its breadth is difficult to be incorporated into policy. This is apparent in the UK up until around the mid 1990s.  Despite this, there has been significant intention to incorporate sustainable development; the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 has done particularly well at this.  However, it should be asked how effective our sustainability policy really is. The Sustainable Development Commission – the policy advisor for the UK and Scottish Government is to be shut down.
Furthermore, this closure has been openly criticised by its commissioners.  The intention therefore of environmental law in modern Britain is to pursue sustainable development; all be it not realised yet in policy. In conclusion, the purpose of environmental law was once public protection, manifested by popular concern, gradually achieved through statue. In addition, later common law provided a good effort to purpose pollution prevention. Now, from international cooperation it now pursues sustainable development, if somewhat ineffective at doing so.