The past few decades have seen a remarkable expansion of environmental democracy, commonly understood as the public’s rights to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice regarding the environment.
More than 100 countries have passed access to information laws — up to 30 since 2007. Nearly every country now requires environmental impact assessments in some form, which often contain public participation provisions. And more than 55 countries have established innovative environmental tribunals in the past decade. These laws and initiatives give citizens a voice in the environmental decisions that directly impact them, and allow them to hold governments and businesses accountable for malfeasance.
Still, there’s a long way left to go to truly protect citizens and the planet from environmental harm. In many countries, environmental democracy laws are weak, lack supporting institutions, have not been adequately put to use by the public, or remain ineffective due to entrenched opposition from vested interests. And while case studies reveal an implementation gap between law and practice, it’s yet to be systematically measured through environmental democracy indicators and metrics.
Improving environmental democracy initiatives is especially critical now, as decision-makers negotiate the post-2015 sustainable development goals and countries make commitments to the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative to improve government transparency. Here are three ways that NGOs, advocates, government leaders, civil society groups and other stakeholders can inject environmental democracy into these discussions and strengthen rights to information, participation and justice for citizens around the world:
1. Develop meaningful metrics to benchmark progress in establishing and protecting environmental democracy at the national and subnational levels.
Targeted, actionable indicators can help advocates prioritize reforms to enhance environmental democracy. These could focus on provisions that support timely and proactive information release, remove barriers to accessibility and establish appeal mechanisms. Laws supporting citizen participation should ensure that participation is expanded outside of the EIA process, provide adequate and timely opportunities for input, are supported with necessary information, and have feedback mechanisms. Metrics on access to justice should assess whether states have established appeal and review procedures when rights are violated, involve impartial and independent judiciaries, and have mechanisms to reduce barriers for marginalized groups. Stakeholders can look to existing frameworks for guidance, such as the legally binding UNECE Aarhus Convention and the U.N. Environment Program’s voluntary Bali Guidelines, which are already recognized by many governments. The World Resources Institute is working on an Environmental Democracy Index to establish a baseline to evaluate individual countries’ environmental democracy measures.
2. Invest in research to better understand the relationship between environmental democracy, poverty alleviation and environmental outcomes.
See more from this series:
● #DemocracyMatters — now more than ever
● How Africa views democracy and good governance for development
● 6 ways to adapt legal frameworks for effective natural resources management
● 5 ways to 'set sail' toward democratic natural resources management
● How to promote inclusive actions on sound natural resources management
A 2010 review of the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives makes the case for why researchers, funders and advocates should develop more rigorous analyses of how, when and under what conditions environmental democracy initiatives achieve social, environmental and economic goals. For instance, multiple studies demonstrate that transparency alone is often insufficient to addressing critical governance problems if not supported by an engaged civil society, effective mechanisms for the public to hold governments and corporations accountable, and state capacity for implementation. Connecting the dots between environmental democracy and social and economic gains would help ramp up support from governments and other decision-makers. This is by no means a small order. One step may be to increase coordination and collaboration across governance sectors to address shortcomings in research methods, and experiment with quantitative and qualitative methods to evaluate impact.
3. Advocates and practitioners should work with governments, multilaterals and civil society to ensure that environmental democracy commitments are created (and kept) through the post-2015 development agenda and the OGP.
These two ongoing initiatives present major opportunities for injecting environmental democracy initiatives into national goals and creating metrics to benchmark progress. In just three years, the OGP has grown from eight to 65 countries that are making measurable commitments to transparency, citizen engagement and accountability. However, as of earlier this year, less than 5 percent of the more than 1,100 commitments focused on the environment and natural resources, with roughly 60 percent of participating countries making no environmental commitments at all. A year from now, the sustainable development goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals as the international framework for setting sustainability and development targets. Putting environmental democracy at the center of these broad, international initiatives’ objectives could improve access to information, participation and justice for citizens around the world.
Environmental democracy has come a long way in the 22 years since the Rio Declaration. It can become stronger and go farther if advocates and their allies seize these opportunities to measure progress, build knowledge, and make environmental democracy part of larger efforts to improve governance worldwide.
#DemocracyMatters is a three-week series exploring the intersection of democracy, development and natural resources management in partnership with International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
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