Measuring Environmental Democracy

Summary

The global environment has a new ally: EDI, the new Environmental Democracy Index launched on May 20, 2015.

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Developed by American think tank WRI (World Resources Institute) and TAI (The Access Initiative) network, EDI is an online platform that allows private citizens and lawyers, as well as institutions, to get an accurate idea of environmental protection laws and their actual enforcement in close to 70 countries around the world. EDI is presented in the form of a database created from information provided by each surveyed country. Its role is not, however, that of a judicial tool (or repository for complaints) designed for civil society.

The idea of the index was built on a simple observation: the public’s participation is a key factor in the implementation of a virtuous form of environmental democracy. In fact, to become the protagonists of a more sustainable world, private citizens will first need access to as much information as possible about the environment and will also need to be involved in local decisions – whose merits they must be able to challenge, if need be. These are the three fundamental rights that EDI measures, giving the general public the opportunity to track progress made in their national regulations and enforcement.

The public’s participation is a key factor in the implementation of a virtuous form of environmental democracy.

“Good” and “bad” students

Of the 70 countries surveyed, 65 have adopted legal provisions that define rights to environmental information. The top-ranked countries are Lithuania and Latvia. These two nations adopted even more stringent laws after signing the Aarhus Convention in 1998.

In Lithuania, for example, people have the right to access environmental information on request. Moreover, the country’s government agencies are required to give the public the chance to get involved in the early stages of local environmental policy and must be proactive in seeking out that participation. However, the State has no obligation to make environmental data easy to understand. In relation to the fundamental right of Justice, the Lithuanian population can appeal any refusal to hand over environmental information and obtain substantial awards of damages if their rights have been violated.

[Lithuania and Latvia] now offer the best legal protection in the world, in terms of environmental democracy.

Conversely, Malaysia, Namibia and Haiti are some of the countries whose results show a singularly low level of environmental democracy. Haiti was ranked last overall for all three fundamental rights combined. With regard to Transparency, there is no established right to access environmental information. No more than there is a legal requirement to engage with the public before making political decisions on those matters. In terms of Justice, the right to challenge decisions affecting the environment is limited, particularly for poorer, marginalized segments of the population, who are unaware of how to assert their rights before a court of law.

Work still to be done around the world

More generally, although most countries have defined some right to environmental information, such information is still hard to access in 45% of the surveyed countries. In addition, more than 75% of those countries were deemed mediocre in terms of their involvement of the public in the decision-making process.

“The public should have the right to be involved in environmental decision-making –specifically, to know what is at stake, to participate in the decision itself, and to have the ability to challenge decisions that disregard human rights or harm ecosystems,” is the opinion held at WRI. “National laws aren’t the only way to improve environmental democracy, but they’re an important first step. EDI can help governments who want to promote transparent, inclusive and accountable environmental decision-making by providing an index to benchmark progress, as well as examples of good practices from around the world.” The results, which can be viewed on the website1, have been sent to the relevant governments and may still be adjusted through August 31, 2015.  In other words, they remain somewhat provisional.

Box

70 countries were surveyed, on every continent. Some 75 legal indicators were used in the analysis. Those indicators are based on the internationally-recognized standards established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the Bali Conference in 2010. The index also utilizes 24 qualitative indicators that provide information on the implementation of national laws.

1 http://www.environmentaldemocracyindex.org

Photo © : Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank