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How open societies can save the planet: The environmental democracy approach

Article by Rafael Jiménez Aybar

October 19, 2021

How open societies can save the planet: The environmental democracy approach

London, United Kingdom, late 2020: six select committees of the House of Commons call a citizens’ assembly to understand public preferences on how the UK should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 because of the impact these decisions will have on people’s lives.[1] The assembly brings together people from all walks of life, shades of opinion, and from throughout the UK to form a representative sample of the UK’s population.[2] Its members have access to a range of sectoral experts providing accessible, actionable information on policy options. The outcomes of their discussions are presented to the six select committees. The committees will use them as a basis for further work on implementing the assembly’s recommendations.


Islamabad, Pakistan, early 2021: for the first time in the history of the Parliament of Pakistan, a Committee of the National Assembly – the one on climate change – adopts an annual work plan drafted in consultation with, and voted upon by, a broad platform of policy experts, academics, and civil society organisations. The Committee Chairwoman Hon. Munaza Hassan is praised by the Speaker for this democratic innovation as an example for the whole House.


Kampala, Uganda, mid-2021: a high-level roundtable on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement in the run-up to COP26 is convened by Climate Change Committee Chairman Honourable Lawrence Biyika Songa. With the main public policy climate actors in one room, alongside civil society organisations, Hon. Songa can solicit support and build consensus among the committee Members around the national climate bill. The bill had been introduced in 2018, but it stalled since, as the key climate change stakeholders had been engaging in silos. A week later the bill is tabled for a second and third reading and is passed without opposition.


What do these developments have in common? They are examples of environmental democracy principles in action that resulted in tangible progress: people being given an opportunity to access actionable environmental and climate information and participate in decision-making – and, in doing so, creating the political space for ambitious climate policies, as well as providing vital momentum for implementation.


The latter two examples are also results of some of recent WFD’s efforts embedding an environmental democracy approach across its wide portfolio of democracy support programmes.[3] It has been encouraging to see that, far from questioning this innovation, parliamentary champions have welcomed it with open arms. As Hon. Songa closed the high-level roundtable, he thanked WFD ‘(…) for this engagement, because it has always been a challenge to mobilise all these stakeholders to discuss the bill (…)’. Indeed, environmental democracy practices do not undermine representative democracy – rather, they provide a solution-oriented toolbox strengthen it.


The environmental democracy lens: Bridging political, governance and scientific imperatives

WFD’s move to embed the environmental democracy approach in democracy support programming was inspired by a holistic understanding of the hybrid nature of global environmental challenges, and mindful of the constraints for solutions to be found.


Many of today’s environmental concerns are, at their core, political issues, and failures of governance. Environmental science is not disputed, but so far political systems worldwide have failed to produce the decisive action required to address adequately climate change and environmental degradation. Despite the ever-growing number of international environmental agreements and treaties, the Environmental Rule of Law report of UN Environment revealed that implementation at the national level is poor, and that many countries have neither the required capacity nor the political will to deliver on their commitments.[4]


Yet a failure to avoid dangerous warming and further degradation of earth’s life-support systems will destabilise societies and hit the most vulnerable peoples and countries first. A feedback loop between unbridled environmental degradation and the degradation of human rights and, ultimately, of the rule of law, seems inevitable. On September 13th, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that environmental threats are worsening conflicts worldwide: “The interlinked crises of pollution, climate change and biodiversity act as threat multipliers, amplifying conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and forcing people into increasingly vulnerable situations,” Bachelet said.[5]As these environmental threats intensify, they will constitute the single greatest challenge to human rights of our era.


The constraints for solutions are physical in the first place: the carbon budget available for humankind to keep global warming below the safer threshold of 1.5C recommended by science is small, so time is short. The shift to more sustainable production and consumption patterns and ecosystems management is just as urgent, having regard to planetary boundaries.


However, the constraints are political and financial as much as they are time-related and physical. The policies required to deliver the objectives of the Rio Conventions, from the post-2020 global biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to the Paris Agreement require not just rapid but profound changes in our lifestyles, from the way that we eat, heat and cool our homes, and travel, to the way we invest our savings. Some of these changes will be unpopular.


In addition, some of the changes, as well as the unavoidable impacts of the climate change already locked in, will also be complex and costly in the short term, and decisions will need to be made on how bills and efforts are shared. Different climate policy options will place the financial burden and the effort on different social groups, and people will expect the sharing to be fair, or else they will object to the measures, even if they agree with the need for action on climate and sustainability. Compensations for losses and damages, even at local level, will ultimately need to be tackled. Unfair or ill-communicated policies will leave room for populists to question the need for action and undermine precious public support for the climate policy objectives.


In democratic countries, these changes will not occur without sustained and massive societal buy-in, or else democratic institutions will not be able to deliver them. No mainstream political party will campaign on an ambitious Paris-compatible platform unless it believes that will earn it enough votes, nor advance it inadvertently once in office. In addition, in most countries democratic institutions are being made fragile under the wave of populist authoritarianism that is sweeping the world. Younger democracies remain more vulnerable still to these threats.


In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional stress on the purse of donor countries, which were expected to live up to their commitments on multilateral climate finance, and to invest in accelerating the shift to a green economy at home.


Environmental democracy: Past and present

The foundations of environmental democracy were established in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which emerged from the 1992 UN Earth Summit:[6]


Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”


The Declaration defines the three critical rights that form the pillars of environmental democracy: transparency and openness, participation, and accountability and access to justice. They are mutually reinforcing.


Since 1992 the principles of environmental democracy have been embedded more comprehensively in other international and regional instruments. These include the 1998 Aarhus Convention, with 47 parties across Europe and Central Asia, and the 2018 Escazu Agreement with 22 signatories across Latin America and the Caribbean, and new provisions focused on protecting environmental human rights defenders. It appears that the flame of environmental democracy is slowly catching.


Unfortunately, the flame is not catching fast enough: environmental defenders were killed in record numbers in 2020, according to Global Witness’ report of September 13th.[7] The number of such deaths last year was more than double the figure in 2013, but Global Witness believes its data represents an undercount because it depends on the level of transparency, press freedom and civil rights in the countries surveyed. Since 2012, when Global Witness started gathering data on killings of environmental defenders, the evidence suggests that as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet also increases.


In order to catalyse and accelerate action implementing Principle 10, the 11th Special Session of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council/ Global Ministerial Environmental Forum adopted a set of guidelines ‘for the development of national legislation on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters’ in Bali, Indonesia, in 2010.[8]


However, in relative terms, over the last decades bilateral and multilateral donors have not prioritised investing in enhancing the environmental rule of law in recipient countries, even as an insurance policy for the durability of their investment on flagship pilot projects. Accordingly, national and multilateral agencies targeting environmental problems often had neither the mandate, the budget lines nor the in-house expertise to ‘do politics’, which is how the policy and governance agendas are often perceived. Similarly, international democracy support actors lacked the mandate, expertise, and resources to address environmental governance matters in their programming. This has impaired the effectiveness of both sets of actors to tackle issues that straddle the traditional environmental protection and governance spheres, such as corruption and policy capture, which in most resource-rich younger democracies are inextricable from environmental decision-making.


Open data on the environment, open societies – or the reverse

Environmental openness, the right to freely access information on the environment, is required to help citizens, civil society, media, businesses, the courts, and the international community understand what is happening in relation to the environment and how their governments are responding. Environmental openness is a precondition for effective environmental rule of law.


Open data has a transformative potential because it allows the release of data into the public domain that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone. If this information is in open data formats, then it enables a raft of digital tools to be built by civil society watchdogs using the information.


Environmental openness, so that environmental information is available proactively or upon request, has been legislated upon all around the world, beyond the countries which are Parties to the Aarhus Convention and the Escazu Agreement. Most countries have regulated access to information in a legal act. However, some countries, which have regulations and laws to access information even if not designed exclusively for environmental issues, encounter enormous socio-cultural, institutional, and political barriers for their adequate and timely application.


Despite the importance of this principle and regardless of provisions in force, many countries are still reluctant to opening up critical climate- and environment-related data. Moreover, many countries are hesitant to invest in the necessary infrastructure that would allow for information to be published in open data standards, which means that governments’ data remains locked away or in unusable formats.


A lack of environmental openness entails significant risk for sound environmental governance, and for the rule of law more broadly. The most significant of these risks is the fostering of an enabling environment for corruption and policy capture, which will lead to unfettered environmental degradation and related impacts on the lives of people, often the most vulnerable in society.


At the same time, corruption and policy capture undermine access to information on the state of the environment and access to participation. Research shows that gaps between the legal provisions and the implementation of these provisions are frequent and affect major activity areas (e.g. fisheries management, land use and deforestation) in resource-rich countries. Despite the growing number of initiatives that seek to improve access to information and transparency of data around natural resources and environmental projects, opacity around environmental issues and natural resource-based economic development is still the rule in many resource-rich countries, including most of those in Global Britain’s foreign policy priority countries in Africa and the Indo-Pacific region.


This makes it much harder to ensure appropriate policies on the environment. Critically, it also needs to be viewed in light of recent trends towards de-democratisation and rising authoritarianism, and of the impact of corruption on economic development of countries.[9]


Democracy that delivers: New synergies for invigorating open societies

There is a clear link between a well-functioning democracy and addressing environmental crises. The foreign policy goals of Global Britain of open societies and strong democracies on one hand, and of protecting our planet on the other, are mutually dependent. As such, actions to strengthen environmental governance also strengthen democracy and open societies. Therefore, working on the nexus of sustainable environmental governance and the democratic process is bound to deliver benefits on both fronts, and to maximise the effectiveness of investment on multilateral climate technology cooperation as well as on open governance.


However, scaling up this approach will require unprecedented synergies between environmental civil society organisations and policy experts and governance practitioners, as well as across government departments.


Global Britain post-COP26: Environmental democracy, climate openness

Some of the fundamental concepts related to environmental democracy outlined in the Rio Declaration were codified in Article 6 on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, and subsequently incorporated into the Paris Agreement. ACE encompasses actions to promote climate awareness, education and training, access to information, public participation, and international cooperation.


Although pledges concerning ACE are non-binding, they are in fact the political lifeblood of the Paris Agreement and the 1.5°C to 2°C target, particularly for democratic countries.


This is so because a failure by these Parties to promote climate awareness, education and training, access to information, and public participation will surely result in said democratic governments running out of steam, political space, and democratic legitimacy to ratchet up climate action at an accelerated pace every five years, as they have committed to do under the Paris Agreement. The lack of global ambition evidenced in the updated NDCs submitted in the run-up to COP26 suggests that, at present, some Parties already seem to lack the requisite short-term political space to take the concrete, immediate measures that will make the difference for the 1.5°C target and find it more feasible to send high climate ambition into the long grass for now, with net zero commitments by 2050, that is, safely beyond the next electoral cycle. On the other hand, not even the most climate-active totalitarian regimes, such as China, have a better record than most democracies, and otherwise most of them have a far worse score than democracies, which suggests that scarcity of political space for sufficient climate action is not a constraint exclusive to democracy.[10]


In July Members of Parliament from five countries – Canada, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, and Pakistan – added their names to a statement titled ‘Why the empowerment agenda at COP26 matters for the success of the Paris Agreement’ that calls for public empowerment to be a top priority at the conference.[11] The publication of the statement follows the announcement on July 7th that the COP26 presidency programme will include a focus on public empowerment. The statement suggests UNFCCC Parties ought to adopt a more ambitious work programme for climate empowerment at Glasgow next November, place it at the heart of their national climate planning, and count on parliaments – the institutions representing people and making decisions on climate change – as delivery partners. This will make life easier for the parties going forward, and ‘(…) In doing so, the Parties will also be providing a much-needed shot in the arm to democracy’.


In conclusion, Global Britain, with its democratic tradition, its experience testing climate democracy innovation, and the name of one of its main and best-known cities, Glasgow, as the COP26 host, embedded in the name of the next multi-annual agreement on ACE, has a unique opportunity to mainstream the environmental democracy approach in foreign and development policy to enhance effectiveness and maximise the impact of available resources. This will provide it with tools to turbo-charge climate action with democratic innovation, empower civil society champions and their elected representatives, and help Global Britain attain its global climate and open societies objectives.


Global Britain’s embrace of this environmental democracy approach would require the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development & Office to:[12]

  • Adopt a set of principles and multi-annual frameworks for action aligned to the principles of climate and environmental democracy, informed by its strong skills in political analysis, with the aim of bringing environmental actors together in a coherent long-term effort to influence decision-making on climate and environmental governance.
  • This includes supporting institutions that hold governments accountable, strengthening civil society and climate and environmental coalitions, increasing awareness of climate risks and opportunities, environmental rights and environmental justice, and encouraging the free flow of accurate and up-to-date climate and environmental information.
  • In the aftermath of COP26, priority should be given to supporting actions at country level in key nations focused on the democratic scrutiny of government action to deliver on the commitments under the updated NDCs, including parliaments’ progress in adopting the required legislation and reviewing its enforcement, and the implementation of ACE programmes.
  • Put in place grant and contracting arrangements allowing medium-sized grants to be awarded to the specialist not-for-profit sector for climate and environmental democracy support activities.


Rafael is WFD’s Environmental Democracy Adviser. He has over 15 years of experience strengthening national parliamentary capacity on climate and environmental governance worldwide from the Secretariat of GLOBE International, the world’s oldest independent parliamentary network on the environment.


[1] Climate Assembly UK, see website:

[2] Climate Assembly UK, Who took part?,

[3] WFD, Global environmental crises – a democratic response,; WFD, Our approach,

[4] UNEP, Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report, January 2019,

[5] UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, Environmental crisis: High Commissioner calls for leadership by Human Rights Council member states, September 2021,

[6] Environment Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992,,for%20present%20and%20future%20generations

[7] Global Witness, Last line of defence, September 2021,

[8] UNEP, Guidelines for the development of national legislation on access to information, public participation and Access to justice in environmental matters, February 2010,

[9] UNODC, UNODC’s Action against Corruption and Economic Crime, June 2021,

[10] Climate Action Tracker by Climate Analytics, New Climate Institute, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). It currently rates China’s ambition as Highly Insufficient, while the USA, the US and the UK’s are rated as ‘Insufficient’. The Gambia is one of the few countries currently rated as ‘Paris-compatible’, see:

[11] WFD, Why the empowerment agenda at COP26 matters for the success of the Paris Agreement, July 2021,

[12] WFD’s approach to Environmental Democracy, June 2020,

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