Time to shift focus to existing environmental laws, says new UN report

The first ever report on environmental policies worldwide was released by the UN on Jan. 24.

Article by Kimberley Brown.

The most important thing we can do to address climate change isn’t to create new regulations, but ensure that countries comply with the regulations that already exist.

That’s according to the first ever report on environmental policies worldwide, released by the UN on Jan. 24. The report concludes that environmental concerns have reached every corner of the world, such that all countries have at least one environmental law or regulation in place – yet very few nations comply with them.

According to the report, 176 countries have environmental framework laws; 150 countries have enshrined environmental protection or the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions; and 164 countries have created cabinet-level bodies responsible for environmental protection, as of 2017.

Yet, worldwide there are still alarming rates of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, rising global temperatures, and the targeting of environmental rights defenders.

A recent report by the University of Maryland released by Global Forest Watch found that 2017 was the second worst year on record for tropical forest loss, losing 15.8 million hectares (39 million acres).

“It’s not that we shouldn’t develop more laws, but the emphasis needs to shift from development of policies and institutions to implementation and enforcement,” said Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC and lead author of the UN study.

One of the greatest challenges to policy implementation is a lack of political will, say researchers. The report highlights a variety of reasons that environmental laws are not fully complied with worldwide, including: the perception that it will impede development, lack of funding for environment ministries, lack of participation in environment issues by civil society and corruption.

“We need to build awareness about why these environmental laws are important, because it all comes back to political will. This determines staffing levels, funding, willingness to prosecute, and whether corruption will be tolerated or punished,” Bruch told Mongabay by phone.

Development over environment

Indigenous women march in Puyo, Ecuador on March 8, 2018. Photo by Kimberley Brown/Mongabay.

Ecuador is one example where the extraction sector plays a key role in the country’s development plans, which conflicts with the rights of nature and local indigenous populations.

The South American nation was one of the first countries in the world to add the Rights of Nature to its constitution in 2008, which ensure the protection of natural environments and reparations if it is affected by extraction projects.

The same constitution also includes special rights for indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian populations, and ensures their rights to free prior and informed consultation for any extraction projects planned on or near their territory that might affect their livelihood.

Despite these protections, the same constitution also states that nonrenewable natural resources belong to the state. This has become a major point of conflict in the Amazon rainforest, where the current administration of Lenin Moreno is soliciting international mining investments for large-scale copper mining, developing oil fields near the Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet; and auctioning off various oil fields in the northern Amazon.

Over the past year, indigenous communities who live in these regions and environmentalists have held rallies, marched across the country to the capital Quito, blocked highways, and occupied the office of the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources protesting these projects, saying they do not comply with the environmental and indigenous laws in the constitution.

UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights Victoria Tauli-Corpuz visited Ecuador in November, and said she was concerned about human and environmental rights in the country.

“There are definitely some good laws, but the enforcement and implementation of these still remain a big challenge,” Tauli-Corpuz told Mongabay by phone in November. “People are not being consulted in any adequate way,” she added, referring to the indigenous communities who were not consulted about the extraction activities planned near their territory.

This is a common occurrence, according to the UN report, as countries tend to favor short term economic development and overlook the ways in which environmental policies contribute to sustainable development over the long term.

Actually following environmental policies increases trust in institutions and governments, which attracts investment, grows markets, and reduces corruption. This is in addition to protecting the environment, native species and the health of local populations, adds the report.

A Global Objective

Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The importance of this study is that it underpins so many other global objectives, says Bruch. This includes the Social Development Goals, and the goals stated in the 2015 Paris talks to reduce climate change, which assume that laws are going to be complied with.

“If we aren’t able to create a culture of compliance, how on earth are we going to meet these goals?” Bruch said.

The environmental report assesses four main “priority areas,” where are improvements are needed in order to strengthen environmental law enforcement. These include strengthening government institutions, improving legal tools for civic engagement, increasing access to all human rights (including water, health, information, nondiscrimination etc.), and better application of justice.

The report does not break down compliance information country-by-country, but Bruch noted some interesting regional trends. Africa, for example, has a more advanced framework for environmental laws and constitutional rights than any other region, because of its long history of abuse by extraction industries. Countries in this region are more likely to have transparency laws, like making all or some of the contracts related to oil, gas or mining, public he added.

The challenge for Latin America has been the backlash against environmental rights defenders, said Bruch. This is the region that has seen the most human rights violations of this kind. One study by Global Witness found that 197 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2017 alone, the vast majority of which were in Latin America.

The environmental director says it was “empowering” to see the amount of countries that already have environmental laws and ministries in place, since it’s relatively new that the environment has been considered a policy issue. This began in the 1970’s, but it wasn’t until the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that countries really began to make an effort to enact environmental bills, says the report.

“It’s amazing what we have done when we have put our mind to it,” says Bruch, optimistic that countries could achieve more.

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