By Alfred Nyakinda

Failure to enforce environmental laws is the greatest hindrance to effective environmental protection, according to the first ever Global Report on the Environmental Rule of Law published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The report found that efforts made in the creation of environmental laws have resulted in a 38 fold increase in their number since 1972, when UNEP was established, but have not been matched by a similar commitment towards enforcement.

This latest news comes in the wake of findings detailed in a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018. According to the IPCC report, human influence has become the principal agent of change on the planet and has already shifted the world from its previous, relatively stable geological era into a new unpredictable era. The IPCC added that responding to climate change in this new era will require approaches that integrate multiple levels of interconnectivity across the global community.

Agenda 21 of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro formed a non-binding basis for an international partnership for sustainable development and environmental protection worldwide. Its main aim was ensuring development proceeds sustainably by seeking to reorient the systems of incentives and penalties which motivate economic behavior to promote sustainability. It further sought to eliminate poverty through better management of natural resources and improve quality of life by ensuring access to a clean and healthy environment.

The Environmental Rule of Law report states that 88 countries have adopted a constitutional right to a healthy environment, 65 countries enshrined environmental protection in their constitutions and over 350 environmental courts and tribunals have been established in over 50 countries.

However two persistent challenges found were the weakness of environmental ministries and the lack of incentives for companies to comply with barely enforced laws, whose penalties can be incorporated into the cost of doing business. These problems, the authors noted, stand in contrast to the fundamental need for all people to have clean air, water and food, driving the need to pay particular attention to environmental rule of law.

“This compelling new report solves the mystery of why problems such as pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change persist despite the proliferation of environmental laws in recent decades,” said David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

There were some exceptions found, such as the natural resource dependent Costa Rica. It has increased life expectancy to more than 79 years, achieved 96% adult literacy, built per capita income to almost US$ 9000, while having doubled its forest cover to almost 50% and being on track to being climate neutral by 2021. A study of Costa Rica’s progress emphasized the success of implementation of strong environmental controls alongside economic development which results in a deep respect for courts and environmental institutions, leading to the emergence and maintenance of environmental law.

Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director, UN Environment, cited Costa Rica as an example of the importance of environmental rule of law, saying, “Environmental rule of law provides agencies with the authority to act. It provides citizens with clear pathways to justice and sets a fair framework for businesses to behave sustainably”.

The report echoed these sentiments, stating, “The ultimate goal of environmental rule of law is to change behavior onto a course toward sustainability by creating an expectation of compliance with environmental law”.