Lever III: Strengthening Environmental Law
Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
Recently we have seen a movement away from regulatory approaches in high income nations, based around the notion that only lower-income nations need stronger environmental laws. Many people think that environmental conservation and sustainability are primarily problems of policy (not law), favouring voluntary approaches.
Across all regions, sustainable pathways will require stronger environmental laws and a stronger rule of law. This includes transparent law- and rule-making, free from the special involvement of vested interests, and the consistent enforcement of said laws and policies. However, most of the world’s nations today lack these elements of sustainable governance.
Within most nations, policies and laws pertaining to environmental protection need reforms that strengthen their direction and teeth (meaning sufficient strength to enforce compliance). Vague and abstract language in environmental legislation allows for harmful interests to influence decision-making, leaving loopholes or unfair exceptions. Lack of transparency often helps conceal these loopholes and allows them to operate relatively undetected.
Feeble laws and rule-making processes infiltrated by harmful interests create deficits in the laws ‘on the books.’ Even in many high-income nations, vested interests have special opportunities to influence elected officials or bureaucrats (see Money & Politics Part 1 & Part 2; and Lobbying, Astroturfing, and The Revolving Door).
Even when laws are supposedly written “with teeth” they may proceed unenforced, or are enforced unevenly by the programs in charge, receiving little to no backing. Together these problems are understood as insufficient rule of law—a substantial impediment to states governing for the public good.
Paths forward for this lever involve changes to the domestic rule of law and legislation. Environmental laws and policies must be reformed and created to not only protect nature but also to solidify the rights of people and nature. Marginalized peoples often suffer most from unequal protection under the law.
Laws mandating Extended Producer Responsibility (which requires companies to deal with recovery of materials) and Right to Repair (which requires that products are manufactured in ways that enable fixing) are key. These would help rein in Consumption (see Leverage Point 2, Consumption) and reduce Externalities (see Leverage Point 6, Externalities and Telecoupling).
Strengthening environmental law also means changing the law-making process. Environmental law and policy reform requires ensuring that rule-making and policymaking processes are transparent and free from influence from vested interests. It also entails consistent and proper enforcement of existing laws paving the way for future regulations and policies.
Just and transparent law-making requires reforms to the electoral systems. This could include restrictions on campaign financing and reducing corporate influence over policy making. Placing stricter caps to campaign financing or restricting corporation’s lobbying efforts with elected officials can seal off back-door channels of communication (see Money & Politics Part 1 & Part 2; and Lobbying, Astroturfing, and The Revolving Door). This would help limit the potential influence of wealthy and powerful vested interests over the decision making process.
Not all problems are best dealt with through regulatory approaches. There remains a crucial role for voluntary approaches (see Lever 1, Change Incentives) and creative and adaptive management (stay tuned for Lever 2, Improved Management). That said, the three levers are best used jointly. The notion that strong environmental laws impede long-term economic development or reduce jobs is demonstrably false; rather, strong legal frameworks and rule of law are essential for sustainable development.