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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The environmental rights revolution : constitutions, human rights, and the environment Boyd, David Richard


This thesis examines the growing recognition of the right to a healthy environment and its potential influence on public policy and environmental protection. It includes an analysis of 192 national constitutions, a survey of 500+ environmental law experts, an examination of environmental laws and court decisions in 86 nations, and a comparison of the environmental performance of nations with and without constitutional environmental protection using three comprehensive indices and three time-series. Constitutional environmental protection is widespread—incorporated in 140 national constitutions—including 86 constitutions that explicitly recognize the right to a healthy environment. Common law nations lag behind civil law nations in this regard. Environmental rights also are recognized in four binding international agreements covering 115 nations in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Constitutionalizing the right to a healthy environment appears to have significant legal consequences. In 72 of 86 nations studied, national environmental laws were strengthened and incorporated environmental rights post-constitutionalization. In 50+ nations—spanning Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa—courts have enforced the right to a healthy environment. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica have pioneered simple and inexpensive judicial processes for protecting the right to a healthy environment. Increasingly, international courts and commissions are applying environmental rights in human rights cases. In some nations, the constitutional right to a healthy environment appears to be contributing to: enhanced enforcement of environmental laws; a barrier to rollbacks in environmental law; greater government accountability; a level playing field with other rights; reduced environmental injustice; and improved access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice. Preliminary analysis suggests a positive relationship between environmental protection provisions in constitutions and environmental performance. Nations with constitutional environmental provisions have smaller ecological footprints, rank higher on comprehensive indices of environmental indicators, and reduced emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases faster than nations without such provisions. Additional quantitative research is needed to further explore the impact of constitutional provisions on environmental outcomes. In conclusion, constitutionalizing environmental protection, particularly the right to a healthy environment, represents a potentially transformative act, capable of reconfiguring legal systems to place unprecedented priority on ecological sustainability.

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