Where in the World is Environmental Democracy Protected?


The Access Initiative (TAI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched a new online Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) to provide a global assessment of laws that protect environmental democracy. The index is the first comprehensive assessment of procedural rights in an environmental context, and could have implications for curbing the environmental costs of food and agriculture. 

Farmers and consumers are increasingly aware of the negative environmental externalities associated with conventional agriculture.

Armed with access to better information on the true costs of food and agriculture, consumers and producers working to change the food system will also need access to legal information and justice protections to accomplish better societal use of natural resources.

WRI identifies three fundamental aspects of environmental democracy: transparency of information, participation, and justice. The EDI bases its scores and rankings on these three pillars, assessing the extent to which environmental laws in different nations protect these rights. In all, more than 140 environmental lawyers gave 70 countries scores from zero to three for each pillar. 

The project intends to provide a central hub for legal analysis of environmental democracy around the world. The EDI can act as a tool to address problems such as air and water pollution, the impacts of extractive industries like oil and mining, and deforestation.

The index can highlight where illegal environmental externalities are most likely to be corrected through sound legal frameworks and identify areas for improvement.

The EDI also provides country pages that assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing laws in each nation that was assessed by the indicators.

Comparisons between countries, ranking of scores, and visualization of data contribute to a more global understanding of environmental democracy. Many organizations, including Sustainable Food TrustTEEB Agriculture and Food, and Earth Economics, are working on True Cost Accounting (TCA), which is a method for better aligning end-product values with the full costs of production, including environmental externalities. By strengthening procedural rights, which are an essential underpinning to the further development of TCA, the new index can contribute to an improved understanding of where TCA is most likely to be successful.

Some of the results of the index, including the best and worst countries for environmental democracy, may be surprising. The EDI found that the strength of laws that protect transparency and justice is not associated with national income, and that laws that look good on paper may not necessarily be well enforced in reality. The EDI includes 24 supplemental indicators on environmental democracy in practice, which may provide some key insights to compare with the legal scores.

The keynote speaker at the EDI launch event on May 20, 2015 was Avi Garbow, General Counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A panel of speakers included Manish Bapna, Executive Vice President and Managing Director WRI; Lalanath DeSilva, Project Director of Environmental Democracy Practice for WRI; Rizwana Hasan, Goldman Prize Winner and Chief Executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association; Constance Nalegach of the Ministry of Environment in Chile; and Mark Robinson, Global Director of Governance for WRI.

“There are still considerable gaps in both laws and practices,” says De Silva. “It is therefore essential that we come up with ways and means to measure progress and identify these gaps so that they can be closed by both governments and civil society working together.” 

Overall findings of the assessment reveal that transparency of information may be the strongest pillar worldwide. Of all the 70 countries included in the index, 65 enacted some legal provisions providing for rights to environmental information. However, 29 percent of the countries assessed have no requirements on the timely release of this information. Public participation was not as well protected through the law; 79 percent of assessed countries were found to have fair or poor scores for public participation provisions. Furthermore, only 4 percent of EDI countries provide opportunities to participate early during the scoping or planning stage of projects.

According to Hasan, the index could also be a useful way to learn from other countries’ mistakes. “We definitely want the right set of environmental principles and development principles to be followed by our leaders at the global level and also at the national level,” she says. “We can’t just follow blindly the development paths that the developed countries thus far have been following and have thus given birth to problems like climate change.” 

Through the insights of the EDI, researchers and leaders around the world may be able to better understand gaps in environmental democracy to improve legal frameworks that underlie TCA schemes. After all, it’s not possible to hold a polluter responsible for cleanup if citizens don’t have access to information on the damage done in the first place.

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