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The Best and Worst Countries for Environmental Democracy

The environment and human well-being are inextricably linked. When governments, businesses and others make decisions about land and natural resources, they inevitably impact the health, livelihoods and quality-of-life of local communities. So it stands to reason that the public should have a 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.

These three fundamental rights are known as environmental democracy—and not all nations provide it to their citizens.

The new Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) is the first-ever online platform that tracks and scores 70 countries’ progress in enacting national laws that promote transparency, accountability and citizen engagement in environmental decision-making. The analysis, based on 75 indicators, identifies the best and worst countries for environmental democracy. The results may surprise you.

The Top Countries with Strong National Laws for Environmental Democracy

The top three countries are all former Soviet states—Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. Many of their relevant national laws were enacted as part of democratization reforms in the 1990s and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) legally binding Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters. Lithuania and Latvia have both ratified this convention and strengthened their legislation after doing so, such as Lithuania’s amendments to its Law on Environmental Protection and Latvia’s passage of its Environmental Protection Law.

Russia in particular may stand out to some as surprising, especially in light of several environmental activists recently fleeing the country out of fear for their freedom and safety. Therein lies a powerful lesson: Countries’ national laws may be quite progressive on paper, but the enforcement of those laws is oftentimes weak or subject to corruption.

All of the top 10 performers have statutes to support the public’s right to access government-held environmental information such as forestry management plans or mining permits, and all of them require at least a majority of government agencies to place environmental information like air and drinking water quality information in the public domain. While public participation scored the lowest across the index, all of the top 10 countries provide the public with the right to participate in major, national environmental decisions, such as infrastructure projects, forest management planning, pollution permitting and more. Lithuania stands out for having the highest score on the justice pillar. Its Civil Procedure Code and Law on Environmental Protection provides for communities to bring environmental cases in the public interest.

What’s also interesting about the top 10 performers is that wealth is not necessarily the defining factor of strong environmental democracy laws. Panama and Colombia are resource-strapped nations, and South Africa is an upper middle income country; nevertheless, they’ve committed to enacting strong environmental laws.

The Lowest-Scoring Countries for Environmental Democracy

Haiti, Malaysia and Namibia scored lowest on the index. Of the bottom 10 countries, some had right-to-information laws, but most lacked provisions requiring that government agencies proactively make environmental information public. In countries like Philippines, Republic of Congo and Pakistan, citizens need to go through time-consuming or expensive information requests to obtain crucial information like statistics on air or drinking water quality. The government may or may not honor these formal requests.

Many of the bottom performers also lacked requirements on collecting environmental information and monitoring compliance. National governments in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Thailand do not actually ensure that factories, mines and other facilities aren’t harming people or the planet. And requirements for public participation in these countries are almost always limited to environmental impact assessments, leaving out other important decisions such as the development of forest management plans, protected area policies or environmental protection laws.

One positive note is that even at the bottom of the list, Saint Lucia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Republic of Congo allow an individual to file lawsuits in the public interest. Otherwise, the right to challenge or appeal government or private sector decisions is not as well established in these countries.

There’s Room for Improvement Across the Board

Even in countries that scored relatively well, there’s still room for improvement. Almost 50 percent of the countries assessed, for instance, are not making real-time air quality data available online for their capital cities. And while nearly half of the countries require agencies to monitor environmental compliance, 64 percent of those with laws on the books do not release any information to the public on emissions or wastewater discharges, pollutants that can impact human health and the environment.

And even if countries have strong laws on the books, it doesn’t mean that they are adequately enforced. EDI measured countries based on the existence of national laws, not implementation. However, supplemental to the legal index, EDI includes 24 indicators on environmental democracy in practice. These indicators are not comprehensive, but they do provide some key insights to allow some comparison with legal scores.

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. It’s time to give citizens a voice—for the good of the planet, and for the good of communities around the world.


Ranking of nations is always a stimulating endeavor, but in this particular ranking I detect the American predilection for laws over performance. Let me note that in the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance index rating of 2014 the U.S. ranked 32nd. One can argue about the specifics, but from No. 1 in 1970 many nations have passed us. Consider that the U.S. is the only nation not to have ratified the Kyoto agreements. No excuses will wash. Not being a member of that protocol meant that the U.S. - at that time the greatest discharger of CO2 to the atmosphere - was not even in a position to suggest constructive changes - just out of the loop.

Back to the laws. While the 1970s laws had iron teeth and rapidly reduced pollution, their adversarial structure against manufacturing and industry drove a wedge into society If you were a bright and idealistic young engineer - potential business leader in the 1970s - would you want to go into a field where labyrinthine new laws and regulations featured language like "compliance", "noncompliance", and penalties as a "violator" could bring fines of $25,000 per day, not to mention private suit by citizen organizations in federal court? Should you be surprised that there was an exodus of business leaders into real estate, banking and finance, imports, entertainment, and law?

Today we have over 700 "named" laws since the beginning of the nation, with a huge increase from the 1970s. Sweden has only 1 primary code - and that of around 175 pages. It averages No. 2 in the EPI index and industry is a cooperator in environmental and global climate change progress. We in contrast are the only advanced nation with unresolvable conflict between environmentalists and industry.

A great initiative very well done makes this a most useful tool for advocates to press their governments.

Thank you.

It's noteworthy that a particular political ideology has attached itself to certain terminology that has no place in politics. We're a pluralistic society and "climate change" as one example is the worse for it as is "global warming." We now have muddled meanings and the outcome document from the Rio+20 summit titled, "The Future We Want" makes it very clear, with 283 paragraph length "wants," that there's no issue not attempting to come under the umbrella of this "movement." The term "sustainability" now carries no weight when its original intent has now been obscured; it once had some clarity, the need for social, economic, and environmental concerns to all be considered and balanced in the production and consumption cycle as we decide where to direct human and material resources.

If you now want to introduce "environmental democracy" when we have already seen social democracy, it seems to me that you're forgetting "economic democracy," but what's the point? Your trial balloon can't get off the ground with Russia and South Africa earning high marks from you when one is a dictatorship and the other is ruled by the strong-arm leader of a single-party state.

The environmental progressive socialists are on the same side of the political divide as Wall Street and Big Business; that's the side that wants to control other people with each faction opposed by those with no such desire and who want to be left alone so long as they're doing no harm.

Environmental democracy is rooted in the idea that meaningful public participation is critical to ensuring that land and natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. At its core, environmental democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights: the ability of people to freely access information on environmental quality and problems, to participate meaningfully in decision making, and to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for harm.
Protecting these rights for any individual, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable, is the first step to promoting equity and fairness in sustainable development. When essential rights are lacking, information exchange between governments and the public is stifled and decisions that harm communities and the environment cannot be challenged or remedied. Establishing a strong legal foundation is the starting point for recognizing, protecting, and enforcing environmental democracy rights. The term “environmental democracy” has been in use at least as early as 1992 in an EPA report on the Toxic Release Inventory and later in the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s development of the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation, and access to justice in environmental matters. The Access Initiative is a network of over 250 civil society organizations in over 50 countries for which WRI is the Secretariat. Our members have been working to expand these rights in law and practice in countries around the world.

The Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) is the first online public platform that tracks countries’ progress in enacting national laws to promote transparency, justice, and citizen engagement in environmental decision making. The index evaluates 70 countries, across 75 comprehensive legal indicators and 24 limited indicators of practice, based on objective and internationally recognized standards established by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Bali Guidelines. It draws on national laws and practices that were assessed and scored by more than 140 lawyers around the world. Country assessments were conducted in 2014 and will be updated every two years. A country that scored well on EDI means that it has enacted strong national laws in this regard. EDI does not, at this point in time, provide a comprehensive evaluation of the implementation of these laws, nor does it evaluate laws at the subnational level. EDI also does not measure the state of human rights, civil society space, corruption or the rule of law all of which factors affect and influence whether the laws are being implemented well and if citizens actually enjoy the legal rights. However, we believe that one of the values of EDI is that it will help advocates and practitioners better identify where there may be legal gaps that could be improved and when the law is simply not being upheld.

EDI legal scores are however supplemented by 24 practice indicators which we are piloting this year and which will be expanded in the next index. These practice scores can be seen side by side with the legal scores. While the practice scores are not a proxy for the state of implementation of laws in a country (as they are not comprehensive as yet), they do test discrete aspects of the implementation of the Bali guidelines giving the user an insight into implementation.

You can read more about the methodology here:

FAQ here:

We welcome your feedback on anything specific to the index. You can use the contact form here:

Thank you,

Jesse Worker

The most important thing, which the index, has not addressed is implementation. A country can sign up to numerous agreements and enact a multitude of laws but if the political will and rule of law is not there to enforce them they are meaningless and worst of all can be used as a cover up.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) team at Yale is excited that EPI rankings are included on the EDI country scorecards. The EPI is a 15 year project that produces a biannual ranking of 178 countries on 20 key environmental issues ( We ran a quick comparison of EPI and EDI scores for the 70 countries included.

Surprisingly, there is no meaningful relationship between environmental performance and access to environmental rights. This weak correlation might be partly due to the same size of countries compared. Read more about this comparison in our review of the EDI here:

Look forward to seeing how EDI results are used to advance environmental rights and ultimately improve environmental performance in countries. Congratulations to WRI and The Access Initiative team on launching the EDI.

Alisa Zomer
Research Fellow, Yale University

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