UK under fire over inadequate progress on environmental protection

A 2017 report by the United Nations has condemned the UK’s record on access to justice in environmental matters, citing their concern that the government have “moved [the UK] further away” from meeting their obligations under the Convention.

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee highlighted that while Scotland has not yet fulfilled their obligations under the Convention, recent reforms “are welcome” in this area. Common complaints refer to the unreasonable cost of projects serving the environment, and with the cost falling to the aggrieved citizens who raise the action, many are deterred from standing up for environmental causes.

Following a complaint by the non-profit environmental law firm ClientEarth and the Marine Conservation Society in 2014, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee found that the UK was failing to ensure the affordability of environmental claims and again in July 2017, ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth took the UK government to court over reforms that allow the legal costs of the case to change at any time throughout proceedings. These reforms are likely to further discourage those who want to challenge the government.

While organisations continue to fight back against such reforms, Brexit threatens to derail the UK’s progress on environmental initiatives. Theresa May has refused to guarantee the execution of legal commitments to the environment in Brexit negotiations, with both Conservatives and Labour largely overlooking the environment in their most recent manifestos.

Scotland is setting an agenda to help achieve their environmental targets, with the Scottish Parliament proposing the creation of an environmental court. Renowned judge Frank Mulholand publicly supported the proposal. The court would be armed with criminal jurisdiction that would allow for prosecutions of environmental crimes. Furthermore, the Scottish courts have shown a similar willingness to prosecute environmental crimes; in 2012, Cambuslang-based recycling plant Doonin Plant Ltd was convicted of keeping hundreds of tonnes of waste in a manner likely to cause pollution and fined a record £200,000.

As Leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas has stipulated, “without a prosperous and thriving environment, there cannot be a prosperous and thriving economy.”

In 2016, the UK had its hottest year on record. Brexit will leave a gaping hole in the enforcement of environmental law in the UK, while 75% of young voters, 18-25-year-olds, have voted to remain in the European Union and thereby showed support of the EU’s environmental policies.

By Alexander Muir