Legislative leadership on environmental issues

Legislative leadership on environmental issues

This report from examines the extent to which legislatures protect the environment, by conducting a study of single-use plastic bans in 32 countries.
plastics on barbados beach
Dr Petra Alderman

Dr Petra Alderman


Environmental issues are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. More extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels and wide-spread pollution complicate everyday lives of millions of people around the world, but formal environmental action lags behind what scientists often deem as necessary to stop the pace of environmental decline. This raises concerns that the longer we wait to take formal environmental action, the more likely we are to find ourselves in crisis conditions that require swift environmental action at the expense of democratic governance. There are good reasons to worry as research indicates that ‘authoritarian environmentalism’ does not lead to optimal policy outcomes or problem-free implementation.

Legislatures play an important role in policymaking: they represent the public interest, hold governments to account and scrutinise legislation to ensure better policy outcomes that are based on consent rather than compliance. Yet, there is clear evidence that legislatures are already getting bypassed when it comes to environmental policymaking. Top-down environmental action that avoids legislative scrutiny, however, might be a poor substitute for quality and long-term sustainability. Instead of pitting swift environmental action against democratic governance, it is important to consider the following questions:

  1. What role do legislatures play in environmental policymaking?
  2. To what extent does this role vary between different regime types?
  3. What are the main enablers and barriers to legislative action on environmental issues?
  4. What can be done to support legislative leadership on environmental issues?

To examine the extent to which legislatures protected the environment, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Developmental Leadership Programme and the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham conducted a study of single-use plastic (SUP) bans in 32 countries focusing on the following three indicators: a) whether a country has a legally binding SUP ban; if it does, b) what scope it has; and, c) how it was enacted. Data on these indicators was collected between February and April 2022 from publicly available sources, including government websites and legal repositories. Three in-depth case studies were conducted in Barbados, Kenya and Thailand to complement this data and illustrate the different levels of legislative involvement in enacting SUP bans and their outcomes.

The study reveals that:

  • There is little variation in the uptake of legally binding SUP bans across different regime types.
  • Electoral and closed autocracies tend to ban fewer SUPs than liberal democracies, but they are more ambitious with regards to the scope of banned activities.
  • Fines are by far the most popular penalty for contravening SUP bans across all regime types.
  • Electoral democracies and electoral and closed autocracies prefer a regulatory as opposed to legislative route for enacting their SUP bans.
  • SUP bans enacted through a legislative process are often more robust and sustainable regardless of the level of legislative scrutiny.

These findings suggest that legislatures can play an important role in environmental policymaking and that promoting swift environmental action at the expense of democratic governance does not always pay dividends. Inspiring more legislative action on SUPs and other environmental issues is not easy as there are several barriers that can prevent effective legislative involvement regardless of a specific regime type. These include weak parliaments, legal frameworks designed to prevent effective legislative action, political partisanship, and strong industry interests.

To overcome these barriers, the study recommends:

  • Inclusion. More opportunities for stakeholder consultations that include legislators and not just government representatives are required to co-create solutions to environmental issues.
  • Training. MPs interested in environmental issues should be identified and trained in leadership skills.
  • Advocacy. Structural and legal provisions designed to keep legislatures weak should be identified and changed.
  • Investment. Public awareness and education campaigns should be supported in order to create public pressure and protect legislators from industry interests.
  • Democracy. Provision of environmental support and funding should go hand in hand with upholding legislative processes.