Guest Contribution

Measuring environmental rights with the Environmental Democracy Index

In May 2015, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Access Initiative (TAI) launched the beta version of the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI). EDI is the first online public platform that tracks countries’ progress in enacting national laws to promote transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement in environmental decision making. It also provides some key insights into areas of practice, such as whether air quality information is made available online or whether NGOs have been able to challenge polluters in court. These procedural rights—access to information, public participation, and access to justice—are critical components for fair, inclusive, and accountable environmental governance. They have also been recognized as human rights by the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights and the environment.

The index evaluates 70 countries, across 75 legal indicators based on objective and internationally recognized standards established by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Bali Guidelines. EDI also includes a supplemental set of 24 limited practice indicators that provide insight on a country’s performance in implementation. The UNEP Bali Guidelines were adopted in 2010 to help guide governments in the development and implementation of laws and regulations to protect the public’s right to access environmental information, participate in decision-making, and access justice in environmental matters. The scores are provisional to allow for feedback from governments and civil society. They will become final on August 31, 2015. When governments issue public responses to the results, WRI is making them available on that country’s page.

Indices can be powerful tools to measure progress, raise awareness, spur dialogue, and catalyze change in governance and policy making. Indicators, when carefully constructed, can help stakeholders monitor progress and diagnose areas in need of improvement. EDI’s indicators were designed to be as discreet and actionable as possible, so that users can easily determine what steps policy-makers should take to strengthen laws or improve practice. This is important, considering several ongoing international processes in which governments will be making commitments to improving governance and sustainable development. These include the Open Government Partnership, the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and negotiations facilitated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) to develop a working instrument on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration (the environmental democracy principle) for the Latin American and Caribbean region. The EDI website, which allows users easy access to the laws, regulations and practices for the countries assessed, can help decision-makers make better policy decisions by drawing on good practice from around the world.

What do the results tell us? While there are lots of results to discuss, major highlights include:

  • The top ten countries (based on strength of national laws) are: Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, the United States, South Africa, United Kingdom, Hungary, Bulgaria, Panama, and Colombia. Notably, five of these countries are party to the legally binding Aarhus Convention, which helps to enforce compliance (WRI and TAI are currently developing a complementary index to assess countries that are party to the Aarhus Convention).
  • In general, laws protecting public participation lag behind those protecting access to information and access to justice. Too often, public participation is only provided through environmental impact assessments.
  • While EDI scores do have a moderate correlation with the country’s wealth level, several lower income countries placed in the top half of the legal index, including Indonesia, Cameroon, India, El Salvador, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe.
  • Nearly ¾ of the countries assessed allow the public to bring environmental cases to court—in other words they provide broad standing. However, few countries had strong legal mechanisms to reduce financial, gender-based, or other barriers to justice.

More blogs and discussions of EDI results can be accessed here.

EDI is important first step to establish the first publically available national-level benchmark of environmental democracy by measuring the extent to which countries have established or recognized rights in their national legal system. Our results show that many countries have not established these rights or they laws have significant gaps. However, as many know, strong laws can be undermined by poor enforcement, willing and capable institutions, or lack of corruption. WRI plans to conduct EDI every two years and is focused on developing more comprehensive indicators on implementation and enforcement of the law. WRI is also focused on building partnerships that could help expand the reach and impact of EDI as well in capacity building activities to develop and implement action plans.

WRI welcomes your ideas, comments, and feedback on EDI—please contact us here.


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Jesse Worker is an Associate with the Access Initiative (TAI) at the World Resources Institute and the manager of the Environmental Democracy Index. He has also led TAI research on institutional assessments for climate change adaptation and contributes to the urban governance practice at WRI. His background is in the governance of natural resource management and climate change adaptation.

Posted by Future Justice on 29 June 2015