Environmental justice describes how people with the least power and money suffer most from environmental problems and have the fewest of the Earth’s resources and benefits, while people with the most power and money cause these problems by over-consuming and polluting the environment.
There is a clear link between the protection of human rights and the environment. Environmental justice is a concept which arose out of the civil rights movement in America, as a result of increasing recognition that poor ethnic minority communities were bearing the brunt of environmental damage and pollution.
The concept has evolved from ‘environmental racism’, but environmental damage - whether caused by climate change, pollution or over development – continues to affect the poor and disadvantaged disproportionately.
This is true in present-day Scotland, as it is across the globe: a 2005 report found that people living in deprived areas in Scotland suffered disproportionately from industrial pollution, poor water and air quality.
There are two defining elements of environmental justice; that of distributive and that of procedural justice in relation to the environment.
Distributive environmental justice recognizes that the human right to a dignified life is fundamental, and as such, everyone has a right to a healthy and safe environment; i.e warm housing, clean drinking water, unpolluted air and food that is safe to eat.
Procedural environmental justice requires that in order to uphold the former, citizens need to be informed about and involved in decision making, and enabled to identify and stop acts that breach environmental laws and cause environmental injustices.
The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters is an international treaty that recognises that ‘adequate protection of the environment is essential to human well-being and basic human rights’ and sets out how procedural environmental justice should be achieved.
Scotland is obliged to implement Aarhus, since UK ratification in 2005, and a growing body of both domestic and international environmental legislation makes it critical that we do so.
The importance of environmental justice was officially recognised in the early years of devolution by then First Minister Jack McConnell, who committed the government to action in saying:
‘people who suffer most from a poor environment are those least able to fight back, and I believe government is about standing up for them and changing that situation... I believe the biggest challenge for the early 21st century is to combine economic progress with social and environmental justice.’
The present Government’s response to the recent Gill Review of Civil Justice in establishing the ‘Making Justice Work’ programme provides the perfect opportunity to build on progressive Freedom of Information and Strategic Environmental Assessment legislation, by finally implementing the last Pillar of Aarhus, and securing procedural environmental justice in Scotland.
Our Access to Environmental Justice campaign is working to ensure that changes are made to the justice system enabling broad and affordable access to justice for individuals, communities and NGOs who want to defend their right to a healthy environment.
Download Tipping the Scales, our report on Scotland's compliance with the Aarhus Convention.
Find out more about our campaign.
Please support our Access to Justice campaign and donate today.