Environmental laws won’t solve climate change if we don’t enforce them, says new UN report

The number of environmental protection laws around the world has increased 38 times since 1972, but lack of sufficient enforcement has rendered many of them useless, according to a new United Nations report.

In 1972, the year of the first United Nations environmental agreement, only three countries had national environmental framework laws: Norway, Sweden and the United States. In 2017, 176 nations had these laws. In addition, 150 countries have enshrined environmental protection or the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, and 164 countries have ministerial bodies responsible for environmental protection.

But the UN report found that few of these laws have been implemented and enforced effectively.

“It’s really something that all countries share,” said Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute and one of the report’s authors, in a telephone interview. “We have a lot of environmental laws on these books that could be so much more effective if fully implemented.”

The report divided environmental policy gaps into four categories: institutions responsible for laws, civic engagement, environmental rights, and justice for those who break the law. Not every country has a problem in every category, but every country has challenges in at least one area that has reduced the effectiveness of its environmental laws, Bruch said.

As regards the institutions, a Member State may, for example, have a law and an agency in charge of enforcing this law, but this agency does not really have the necessary authority to do so. This was a barrier discovered in some Asian countries in the mid-2000s, according to the report, when an assessment found that many national regulators had responsibility for enforcing environmental laws, but “lack clear or sufficiently comprehensive mechanisms to limit and require monitoring of pollutant releases, initiating criminal or civil proceedings, taking emergency response measures (such as closure of a facility), imposing penalties or ordering corrective measures”, indicates the report.

“What we really need to do is focus on implementing the laws we already have.”

Other times, institutions have the authority but still fail to act, a problem that could be addressed through increased civic engagement and the ability of citizens to hold agencies accountable. Take the current lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, which is one of the report’s 35 case studies. The UN report noted that not all local, state and federal agencies properly enforced laws that could have caught the crisis sooner.

By contrast, Costa Rica has doubled its forest cover to more than 50% and is on track to be climate neutral by 2021, bolstered by civic engagement and access to courts, the report notes. Costa Rica’s constitution allows any individual to take legal action to defend a constitutional right, which includes the right to “a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”. A 1994 ruling also allows citizens to sue in the name of the public good, including on environmental issues.

On the justice front, sometimes a lack of adequate training and education for judges can disrupt the systems in place to enforce environmental law. In Ecuador, for example, a non-governmental organization sued to prevent a pine plantation from being erected in a native grassland ecosystem. But the judge, ignoring Ecuador’s constitutional provisions that allow anyone to sue for environmental protection, dismissed the case and allowed the plantation to be built, the UN report notes.

“Due to the complexity and technical nature of many environmental issues, it is particularly important that judges be knowledgeable and skilled in environmental law,” the report reads.

Bruch said it’s time we focused on the structures around the laws to make sure they’re effective. He hopes this will be the first in a series of reports so people can track the progress – or regression – that governments are making to strengthen their environmental laws.

“If we have laws in place and we still see the problems, whether it’s climate change or biodiversity loss, is it because the policies are not appropriate or is it because the policies are not implemented and enforced?” Bruch said. “There’s often an instinct to ‘fix the laws’, and what we really need to do is focus on implementing the laws we already have.”