Environmental democracy: an essential right for the 21st century

by John Knox and Manish Bapna
Thursday, 21 May 2015 08:19 GMT

Activists protest on the first day of the trial over the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in New Orleans, Louisiana, Feb. 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The need is growing for public access to environmental information, participation in environmental decision-making and enforcement of environmental laws

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, polluting hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands, U.S. environmental laws mandated clean-up and compensation for damages. Despite those laws, information flowed haltingly, feeding widespread uncertainty about how much crude was gushing and how to make sure those responsible were held accountable. 

There is information available about rapid deforestation in Guatemala, but with no requirement that damaged land be restored, timber companies and the government have no obligation to remedy the damage.

In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, air pollution is so serious that it may be damaging cultural and historic sites, but there is no air quality information available to the public online, and there are no legal requirements to release this data across the nation.

Around the world, the need is growing for public access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and enforcement of environmental laws, including compensation for harm. Taken together, these three requirements – access, participation and justice – are grounded in fundamental human rights and form the basis of environmental democracy.

Too often, people lack these important rights, marginalized and left powerless by policies crafted without their knowledge or involvement. Simply knowing what government policies are on environmental information can be confusing and comparing laws among countries has been extremely challenging. That’s why a just-released publicly available platform called the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) can bring clarity to this frequently opaque issue.

The new index, created by World Resources Institute in collaboration with hundreds of civil society partners, evaluates 70 countries’ environmental laws and regulations, assessed by more than 140 lawyers from around the globe, based on internationally recognized standards established by the UN Environmental Programme.

BETTER DECISIONS

The findings are illuminating. The top 10 countries in terms of environmental democracy laws represent a mix of regions and income levels. Number 1 is Lithuania, where the public has the right to a wide range of environmental information and a well-established right to challenge government decisions that violate environmental rights. The rest of the top 10 are Latvia, Russia, United States, South Africa, United Kingdom, Hungary, Bulgaria, Panama and Colombia.

Even in countries not commonly associated with public rights, there are signs of progress. In China, a 2014 Environmental Protection Law lets non-governmental organizations to file environmental claims against polluters, and a Chinese court has agreed to hear such a case filed against a chemical company on the public’s behalf, alleging harm from air pollution caused by the company’s factories. South Africa’s high ranking – fifth overall and the only African country to crack the top 10 – is a sign that its citizens have access to environmental information and can participate in a wide range of decision making. In Latin America, Panama and Colombia have made commendable progress in legislating environmental issues.

Empowered by greater transparency and accountability, government officials can draw on examples of good practice in other countries to make better policy decisions. Civil society groups can track their national government’s progress and hold leaders accountable. Researchers can use the index’s findings to support further study and analysis, while international financial institutions can use the index to help inform how and where to channel their investments.

History has shown that having a fair and open decision-making process leads to better decisions. Environmental decisions are best handled with the participation of all stakeholders, with access to information and accountability, as articulated in the Rio Declaration after the pioneering 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. But we need a reliable way to measure laws and practices to encourage positive change on a global scale.

The next six months will be pivotal as the world grapples with the intertwined challenges of eradicating extreme poverty, tackling climate change and advancing sustainable development. World leaders and their representatives will be gathering in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris to set out the agenda for the next generation of finance, development goals and climate action. Better environmental democracy, marked by fair, participatory decision-making, will be fundamental to turn the outcomes of these summits into real action for people and the planet. 

John Knox is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and Manish Bapna is executive vice president and managing director at the World Resources Institute.

Latest News