David Boyd: Environmental bill of rights? Fear not

The Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution last week calling on the provincial government to enact an environmental bill of rights.

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Prior to the vote, there was a surprisingly heated debate. It was surprising because nine out of 10 British Columbians want governments to recognize their right to live in a healthy environment. It was surprising because the arguments mustered by opponents were based on myths, misperceptions and unnecessary fears.

There are already laws that recognize the right to a healthy environment in place in Ontario, Quebec, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, as well as American states from Montana to Pennsylvania. Has there been a flood of litigation in any of these provinces, territories, or states? No. Has there been an economic apocalypse? No.

These laws have prompted more complete and regular disclosure of environmental information, given citizens unprecedented opportunities to participate in environmental decision-making, and pushed public policy in a greener direction.

Even greater assurance comes from the experiences of other nations. Citizens’ right to a healthy environment, and government’s responsibility to protect the environment, is recognized in the constitutions of more than 110 countries around the world. This includes countries such as Norway, Finland and France, as well as Costa Rica and Brazil.

Constitutional protection is much more powerful from a legal perspective than a legislated environmental bill of rights. Yet none of these countries has experienced a flood of frivolous lawsuits or the end of economic development.

Instead, countries with constitutional environmental rights and responsibilities have enacted stronger environmental laws, improved their enforcement of those laws, applied the polluter-pays principle and given citizens a greater voice in environmental decision-making. Most importantly, research demonstrates that these countries have superior environmental performance compared to countries without constitutional environmental rights and responsibilities.

So what difference would it make for B.C. to enact an environmental bill of rights? Of course, the devil is in the details, but it is reasonable to expect a few changes, beginning with more open government and stronger environmental laws.

Under premier Gordon Campbell, B.C. stopped publishing a list of companies that were violating B.C. environmental laws and discontinued a highly regarded state-of-the-environment report series. Also under Campbell, several vital environmental laws were substantially weakened, including the Environmental Assessment Act and the Environmental Protection Act (now the Environmental Management Act).

B.C.’s auditor general recently concluded that the provincial environmental assessment is not protecting the environment from major problems. The approval of the Site C dam is a classic example. Studies show that large dams usually go over budget by 50 per cent, which would make the bill for Site C closer to $14 billion than $9 billion. Perhaps an environmental bill of rights would provide the impetus for a wiser approach to B.C.’s electricity sector.

Imagine investing $14 billion in wind, solar, geothermal and energy conservation. This would provide a green-jobs bonanza, make B.C. a world leader in clean energy and ensure our competitiveness in the 21st century.

Going to court is an expensive, time-consuming and risky process. An environmental bill of rights could create faster, cheaper alternatives, such as mediation. And ultimately, unless the defendant in a lawsuit is breaking the law, they have nothing to fear.

At the end of the day, it’s not an option for governments to recognize and respect human rights, it’s an obligation. Clean air, safe drinking water, fertile soil, vibrant ecosystems and a stable climate aren’t luxuries, they are prerequisite to a healthy, happy and dignified life.

David Boyd is one of Canada’s leading environmental lawyers. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, associate faculty at Royal Roads University and was a Trudeau Scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

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