As a new era of environmental rule of law takes shape, UN recommends good practices

Environmental rule of law around the world is rapidly transforming due to technological innovation, the COVID-19 pandemic, public concerns over climate change and the rise of racial and social justice movements. A report published today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) provides a series of recommendations to governments.

The report, Environmental Rule of Law: Tracking Progress and Charting Future Directions, provides a comprehensive assessment of developments since the release of the first Global Report on Environmental Rule of Law in 2019. Through collecting and analysing data from a survey of 193 UN Member States regarding their laws, institutions, civic engagement, rights and justice, the report highlights the most prevalent aspects of environmental rule of law across countries and tracks progress over time.

“We have made tremendous strides since the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, with virtually all countries having now laws, policies, and regulations to protect the environment,” said Patricia Kameri-Mbote of UNEP. “Nevertheless, the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution and waste is getting worse. The efficacy of laws and agreements hinges on their translation into tangible action. It is essential that governments learn best practices from one another.”

There are six cross-cutting findings which have emerged in the past five years:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic led at least 46 countries to relax environmental requirements, purportedly to ease the burden on industries; virtual engagement increased, but barriers for traditional means of civic engagement undermined conservation and trust with certain vulnerable remote communities; the justice system, whether in Ukraine, Türkiye or in Switzerland, became more transparent and accessible, as it transitioned to virtual platforms and online hearings.
  • The recognition and integration of environmental rights has accelerated, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – now internationally recognized, with at least 159 countries recognizing it at a national or subnational level; New rights-holders such as future generations or the rights of nature itself (recognized or under discussion in 30 countries); A growing consideration of environmental defenders (recognized in 48 countries) and for social and climate justice for  Indigenous Peoples, women, and children.
  • There is growing attention to specialised environmental enforcement, including in development and capacity building of institutions. Specialised environmental courts and tribunals in at least 67 countries have opened their doors to foreign plaintiffs, whose rights are violated at home by transnational entities domiciled within the courts’ jurisdictions. At least 39 countries have a national or subnational judicial training institute with environmental law in their curriculum, and 9 countries have made environmental law a mandatory component of legal training.
  • Technology has the power to revolutionize environmental enforcement and policymaking, as demonstrated by satellites, drones, Artificial intelligence (AI), and citizen science, improving detection of illegal activities, from deforestation and illegal dumping of waste to wildlife poaching. These developments also raise the need for public participation and safeguards to protect rights, as well as overcoming the digital divide between those who have access to modern technology and stable internet, and those who do not.
  • Women are champions of environmental rule of law, often the frontline of conservation and environmental protection around the world, coupled with frequent endurance of harassment and persecution.
  • The social reckoning on climate change is contributing to reductions in harmful emissions through policies, legislation, and judicial action. Furthermore, the protest movement linking race and environmental enforcement in over 4,000 cities, including in Brazil, Mexico, Japan, and Germany, helped introduce climate justice into environmental rule of law.

The report makes four recommendations:

  1. Standardize and track environmental rule of law indicators to allow governments, international organisations, and civil society to track progress, identify challenges and set priorities.
  2. Develop guidance on environmental rule of law in emergencies and disasters, including conflicts and pandemics.
  3. Integrate social justice in environmental institutions by adequately considering disproportionate impacts on certain populations, adopting proactive strategies to integrate social justice into environmental governance, and requiring private companies and NGOs to consider environmental justice in their work.
  4. Establish a technology-policy interface, including systemic collaboration between the technology sector and environmental policymakers and enforcement agencies.

Finally, further research is required regarding environmental rule of law and the role of gender; The applicability of environmental rule of law in areas beyond national jurisdiction, such as oceans, poles and space; Challenges of emerging technology, including gene editing, microplastics and nano plastics, commercial fusion energy; Environmental rule of law in fragile and conflict-affected settings; and the issue of civil disobedience, which becomes ever more relevant as policies stagnate and environmental crisis worsen.

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