4 Real-World Challenges to Environmental Democracy
The Environmental Democracy Index (EDI)—which launched this May—tracks countries’ progress in enacting national laws to promote transparency, public engagement and access to justice in environmental decision-making. There is evidence that national policymakers are increasingly recognizing the importance of these rights. As an example, of the 102 Right to Information laws around the world, 42 were enacted in the past 10 years. However, having strong laws does not always guarantee those standards are upheld in practice.
To better capture how well countries are implementing the law, EDI includes 24 practice indicators in addition to its 75 legal indicators. These practice indicators reveal whether governments are monitoring and disclosing environmental quality data, responding to public comments on major projects with environmental impact and whether the public can hold governments or polluters to account through the court system.
While these indicators are not yet comprehensive, they highlight critical areas where practice is not living up to legal standards. Of the 34 countries that scored “well” overall on the legal indicators, only 19 (56 percent) scored high on at least half of their practice indicators, with the highest scoring country, the United States, having 20 of 24 practices observed in full. This suggests that even countries with advanced laws can do more to promote open, inclusive and accountable decision-making for the environment. Here are four big challenges from the practice indicator results:
Public access to environmental information is still lacking, even in cases where the law requires proactive information disclosure. Air and drinking water quality data is only publicly available in roughly half the 70 countries assessed. Residents in capital cities of 32 of the 70 countries have no access to air quality data online for their city—leaving them unprepared to take necessary precautions to protect the health of their families. (One promising sign: since the study period in 2014, Canberra, Australia launched an air quality index.) In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated outdoor air pollution caused the deaths of 3.7 million people under the age of 60 worldwide in 2012. While some countries like China have earned media attention for efforts to be more transparent about air quality and pollution, EDI results show that many city residents can’t get this information, and without it, urban dwellers are less likely to push for better pollution control.
Information on drinking water quality for capital cities was even worse: only 32 EDI countries provide this information to capital city residents. The 38 capital cities that are not making this information available include megacities such as Beijing, Jakarta, Lagos, Lima and Kuala Lumpur. Seven of these cities are in countries that scored high on legal requirements for information disclosure, showing a clear gap between law and practice. Monitoring and disclosing drinking water quality information is basic good environmental governance; transparency helps the public hold service providers accountable.
Many governments don’t release pollution information from individual operators, even if they collect it. While nearly half the EDI countries require monitoring of environmental compliance of facilities, such as mines or factories, 64 percent did not make this information available to the public. When communities lack timely, understandable environmental health information, they are unlikely to act and may put their wellbeing at risk.
Public disclosure of environmental impact assessments (EIA) for proposed projects or plans is limited. All but nine countries make at least some EIAs available to the public, but only 23 (33 percent) do this consistently and reliably. Since EIAs are the only opportunity in some countries for the public to influence decisions with environmental impacts, their transparency is important to enable accountability. In many countries, citizens use the outcomes of EIA processes to challenge projects which threaten ecosystems or livelihoods.
In the majority of countries assessed, courts are hearing public interest environmental cases -- and this is a good thing – but other obstacles remain. In the past five years, NGOs in 66 percent of the assessed countries have challenged polluters or the government in court. Without judicial standing, public interest organizations have limited means to challenge decisions or seek justice or redress. But achieving standing is only a first step. Individuals or groups may face financial or social barriers to seeking justice. Courts may not be independent or impartial, leading to public distrust of the judicial system. However, EDI results also show that in 44 countries (63 percent), courts have temporarily blocked — or outright prohibited —activities that may be threatening the environment.
As the examples above show, despite the encouraging expansion of environmental democracy around the world, there are still areas where environmental laws are not being properly or fully implemented. EDI can support national dialogues on improving the implementation and enforcement of laws that promote better environmental governance. It can also highlight countries that do well, serving as a resource for practitioners and advocates. In EDI’s next iteration, WRI plans to expand and improve upon the practice indicators to more fully evaluate transparency, public participation and access to justice. When they know where practice is not living up to legal standards, policymakers can more effectively promote open, inclusive and accountable decision-making for the environment.