Environmental Rule of Law: Tracking Progress and Charting Future Directions

Since the publication of the First Global Report on Environmental Rule of Law in 2019, environmental rule of law has both advanced and been challenged. Climate change and addressing historical social inequities have dominated political and social discourse in many countries, shaping recent developments in the environmental rule of law. The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges in implementing and enforcing environmental laws. However, it also spurred technological developments and the uptake of technologies.

Although many countries worldwide have implemented various environmental laws, their effectiveness in practice remains a challenge for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. The existing climate pledges and legislation are not adequate to achieve the goal of limiting global average temperatures to below 2°C, as agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. Additionally, the loss of biodiversity caused by landscape transformation is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and national governments have not fulfilled their commitments to protect and preserve conserved areas. Pollution of both air and water is a widespread problem, with emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and plastic putting waterways at risk. Approximately 99 percent of people live in areas that do not meet the air quality standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO 2021a).

This report aims to support countries in promoting and strengthening environmental rule of law by addressing challenges and good practices. It responds to the need identified in the First Global Report to undertake regular global assessments of environmental rule of law. This report also seeks to fulfill the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) mandate to promote and advance environmental rule of law pursuant to UNEP’s 2013 Governing Council Decision 27/9, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) Resolution 4/20 which adopted the Fifth Montevideo Programme for the Development and Periodic Review of Environmental Law, as well as the Political Declaration of the special session of the UNEA to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of UNEP.

Building on the First Global Report, this report expands the initial findings to provide a comprehensive data-informed assessment of global trends, gaps, and opportunities related to environmental rule of law. UNEP, in collaboration with its partners, developed and collected data on a series of questions related to each of the key components of environmental rule of law: laws, institutions, civic engagement, rights, and justice. By analyzing data on these indicators, UNEP has created a global snapshot of environmental rule of law to identify which aspects of environmental rule of law are most prevalent across countries, and to track progress over time. The analysis of the data is provided in four substantive chapters.

In addition, this report provides a range of good practices integrated into each chapter. These good practices provide evidence of what successful promotion and implementation of environmental rule of law look like in reality. By presenting good practices, UNEP aims to deepen understanding of environmental rule of law through case studies and inspire states and other stakeholders to replicate good practices whenever possible.

Six cross-cutting findings are highlighted: The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on environmental rule of law, both positive and negative; the recognition and integration of environmental rights have accelerated; there is growing attention to specialized environment enforcement, particularly in the development and capacity building of institutions; women are champions of environmental rule of law; environmental rule of law is undergoing a technological revolution; and climate change continues to be both a dominant context for environmental rule of law efforts and a driver of actions to advance it. Furthermore, several overarching recommendations are proposed for future action and collaboration in connection with current global events and challenges, with an eye toward ongoing analyses and efforts to continue strengthening environmental rule of law. Firstly, prioritize the standardization and tracking of environmental rule of law indicators. Secondly, develop guidance on environmental rule of law in emergencies and disasters. Thirdly, integrate social justice in environmental institutions. Finally, establish a technology-policy interface.

A number of issues warrant further research and investigation, and will require collaboration between academic researchers and practitioners that are innovating and pilot testing approaches. This horizon-scanning exercise also highlights future directions for exchange, learning, and programming. The five issues are:

• Expanding conceptions of gender;
• Environmental rule of law in areas beyond national jurisdiction: oceans, poles, and space;
• Challenges of emerging technology;
• Environmental rule of law in fragile and conflict-affected settings;
• Environmental rule of law and civil disobedience.

Understanding and improving environmental rule of law is crucial for addressing the unprecedented challenges that our planet and societies face. In addition to environmental benefits, environmental rule of law provides economic and social benefits by enhancing the protection of nature, public health, and economically valuable natural resources. It also supports and inspires the creation and implementation of ecosystem restoration measures. The consistent, fair, and effective implementation of environmental laws strengthens the perceived legitimacy of government action and builds public confidence in institutions. It contributes to greater security and can reduce conflicts and promote peace.

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