In June 2019, six House of Commons Select Committees called a citizens assembly to understand people’s preferences for how the UK should tackle climate change, in response to demands from Extinction Rebellion. On Tuesday 23 June, the assembly – Climate Assembly UK – published an interim report which set out its views on the recovery from COVID-19 and the path to “net zero” emissions from the UK by 2050.
The report urges the government to align the upcoming large-scale economic recovery investments with national climate goals, and to promote low-carbon lifestyle choices such as cycling and homeworking, adding to the many voices calling for green stimulus programs, from UN Secretary General António Guterres to IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.
As the report shows, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment and created political space for environmental governance: a Belfast-based lawyer who attended the assembly noted: “Despite the very tragic circumstances [of coronavirus], it does provide a unique opportunity for the UK government to think about how they could restart the economy with a stronger emphasis on producing less carbon”.
Governments, parliaments, and civil society organisations across the world can use this moment to push for decisive action to address environmental crises and urgently prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Achieving this requires huge changes to all levels of society, politics, and businesses. A change this great cannot be brought about without strong, effective, and responsive democratic institutions. We need accountable systems of governance, not to mention strong political will built on the full participation and inclusion of all citizens.
In short, our planet needs democracy. To be exact, it needs environmental democracy.
That is why Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is launching a new environmental democracy initiative to support the mutually dependent goals of strong democracies and protecting our planet.
Based on Principle 10 of the Rio Convention and embedded in a series of other international environmental conventions, environmental democracy has three pillars: access to information, access to decision making, and access to justice.
Openness and transparency are required to ensure that citizens, civil society, media, businesses, the courts, and the international community have access to information to understand what is actually happening in relation to the environment, as well as how governments are responding.
Inclusive citizen participation is crucial, especially since the people who will be most severely impacted by climate change and pollution are those who are commonly excluded from political decision-making. Citizens – particularly those most affected by climate change and environmental degradation – need to be able to voice their concerns and influence policy making for the right decisions to be made, and for these choices to have legitimacy.
Access to justice to enforce environmental laws as well as secure redress or compensation for wrongdoing is essential. If environmental legislation and treaties are to have meaning, and people’s human rights are to be respected, there must be effective mechanisms for challenging the action – or inaction – of governments in fulfilling their role as environmental stewards for current and future generations.
Many of today’s environmental concerns are, at their core, political issues and failures of governance. In general, environmental science is not disputed but political systems worldwide have failed to produce the decisive action required to adequately address climate change and environmental degradation. Despite the ever-growing number of international environmental agreements and treaties, like the Paris Climate Agreement, implementation at the national level is poor and many countries have neither the required capacity nor the political will to deliver on their commitments.
Implementing the Paris Climate Agreement requires national parliaments, political parties, and civil society to monitor commitments and influence policy; and effective, consistent and accountable democratic governance is crucial to the successful implementation of laws to manage environmental impacts.
There is a clear link between a well-functioning democracy and addressing environmental crises. WFD is uniquely placed to collaborate with technical environmental specialists and provide leadership on issues that sit at the nexus of sustainable environmental governance and the democratic process.