World Environment Day 2020 #ForNature. Stand as an Earth Trustee.
Launch of Earth Trusteeship Initiative at the Peace Palace, the Hague, 10 Dec 2018.
The current COVID-19 challenges facing the world have brought our interdependence with Nature into sharp focus, as well as the consequences for everyone's health, the economy and way of life when we fail to show respect for the natural world around us.
In building back from these crises, it is essential that further short-term approaches are not allowed to prevail, and countries do not roll back the advancement already made in environmental protection measures.
As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has already highlighted, COVID-19 roll-backs are ‘irrational’ and ‘irresponsible’. The pandemic should rather be seen as a warning signal and one more reason to urgently strive to develop more outcome-focussed environmental laws and protections for the simple reason: without Nature, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink doesn’t exist and thereby humanity. And, without humans, neither does the economy.
In this respect, Sir David Attenborough has also warned that the “Coronavirus pandemic has swept climate change off the front pages”. From the CoP26 being postponed until November 2021 (a now welcome move if the time is used wisely by States also to promote enhanced discussion on Nature-Based Solutions), to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest accelerating amid the pandemic and events such as the Trump Administration reversing 100 Environmental Rules, they all raise serious questions for post-pandemic environmental actions. They also highlight the importance of the principle of non-regression being universally recognised in international and domestic laws.
We have long known these multiple crises are interlocking – and this is now visible. In the face of this crisis, economic and social problématiques are now more than ever also at the centre of attention and consequences of our unsustainable actions plainly evident. But any attempts to put aside Nature as we build back in favour of short-term progressions must be resisted. The science rather emphasises the reality that this is a final opportunity to recognise the interlinkages between humans, the economy and nature and admit the necessity to respect planetary boundaries for our own interests, as well as every other inhabitant of our wonderous planet.
During this pandemic, it is true that Nature has had some respite – with visible (albeit temporary) reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions as a consequence of the suspension of daily commutes and reduced industrial processes etc. In China alone, for example, emissions fell 25% during lockdown. Similar effects have been noticed also in the United Kingdom. This should not, however, be assimilated with a necessity to completely stop any economic development to protect the environment, but act as a call for urgent innovation and new ways of working to rebuild better, smarter and more sustainably.
If this crisis has also helped with raising consciousness on the way we produce and consume and perhaps promoted increases in local consumption, we can be clear that a pandemic is most certainly not a way forward for the environmental movement. The effects of the crisis on Nature have also not been entirely positive. We have indeed observed augmentations of unrecyclable waste and organic waste due notably to the cuts in agricultural and fishery export levels, and the increase of single-use products that create challenges for waste management. Challenges for the rule of law during this period and the operation of courts have equally demonstrated the impacts that crises can have for the environmental rule of law: for example, RSPB reported an increase of up to some 400% in the illegal killing of birds of prey since lock-down.
System-level and concrete action is needed now, including in law. While the return to business is necessary, it is fair to conclude that “business as usual” has gone. To this extent, some governments have already promoted “Build Back Better” in accordance to Nature’s resources and capacities and there are considerable opportunities in this respect. The City of Amsterdam is amongst those that have now already embraced the 'doughnut' model to mend post-coronavirus economy - and it will need the laws to match.
This approach is based on the idea of reducing physical, economic, environmental and social vulnerability to future disasters and aims not only to rectify the deficit created by the previous disaster, but ensure that the result of recovery is sustainable safety for more resilient communities. In the current context, this requires Earth-system thinking and approaches in science, policy and law – boosting economies to create new jobs and fight unemployment and poverty while respecting Nature and promoting efficient environmental protection to avoid the occurrence of new disease and reduce impacts on all planetary boundaries. In a European perspective, Frans Timmermans has made a welcome commitment that “Every euro we invest must flow into a new economy rather than old structures” and that “a green recovery is possible”. The European Union has thus released a roadmap for recovery that promotes 'Green transition and Digital transformation'. The United Nations is also promoting ‘Building Back Better’ by advocating risk-informed development and climate-smart cooperation. And in Scotland, the proposals on Human Rights Leadership also still show promise if commitments are translated into tangible real-world actions.
Concrete action for ‘Build Back Better’ would, for instance, include support for industries to transition to zero-emissions, investment in (truly) green technologies and energy efficiency measures and conditioning financial support packages to environmental progress/outcomes. Nonetheless, where the use of renewable energy and cleaner industry must be promoted for the reconstruction of the economy, it must equally be accompanied by proper environmental impact assessment and assessment of transboundary impacts, sharing of information and technology (and so on) to avoid shifting one environmental problem to another. In any case, no country will be able to emerge from the current crisis without global cooperation and collaboration.
The success of ‘Build Back Better’ not only lies in the hands of governments but also in the hands of individuals. Indeed, we, as individuals and member of the Earth Ecosystem, have the power to ensure this green transition by changing our habits (such as cycling to work, buying local…). We are all Earth Trustees. Moreover, we have the power to demand the development of a cleaner environment to protect our health and well-being and that of future generations and promote our right to a healthy environment to be realised and upheld. We can also do that when we vote; enforcing the environmental rule of law; and in holding corporations to account - helping create a culture of day-to-day accountability.
For the lawyers among us, we also have a particularly unique opportunity to play a leadership role and apply our skills for Nature. We can do that by playing our part in the cases we represent and in urging the drafting of new laws which respect the Earth-system and in our professional and ethical rules of practice. In Scotland we strongly welcome the recent commitments and recognition of the importance of increased opportunities for learning between human rights and environmental groups as we all face the challenges and opportunities this year. We now need to translate that into post-Brexit governance frameworks.
2020 will continue to be challenging, but there is no shortage of work to do!
About the author: Annaig Nicol is a legal intern in the Environmental Rights and Governance project at Living Law and undertaking an LLM in global environmental law.