RSPB Scotland is proud to support the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS), who have launched a petition calling for an enforceable right to a healthy environment in Scots law. In today’s blog, Dr Shivali Fifield from ERCS outlines what this means, why it’s necessary, and how we can all support the petition.

We all deserve to live in a healthy environment. But this is not yet protected as a fundamental human right in Scotland. That’s why the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland has launched a petition to support the drive for an enforceable human right to a healthy environment in Scots law. The petition will stay open throughout 2022 and will be used to show the Scottish Government the strength of support. Please take a moment to sign it and share it wherever you can. 

Scotland must urgently tackle its own environmental problems including air, water and land pollution, flooding due to climate change and a biodiversity crisis. These problems are part of the global climate and nature emergencies.

People living in areas of highest disadvantage are the worst affected by environmental problems and also have the least access to healthy, biodiverse green spaces. Children, older people, disabled people and people with health conditions are hardest hit.

We should be able to hold public bodies and polluters to account. But in Scotland it is incredibly difficult to use our legal system to stand up for the environment and our health. It is complicated, expensive and intimidating.

In a welcome move, the Scottish Government has promised to include the human right to a healthy environment as part of a suite of protected rights which it will introduce through the Human Rights (Scotland) Bill. This Bill will be consulted on this summer.

The task now is to ensure that the right to a healthy environment remains a top priority and is enforceable so that public bodies and polluters respect it and we can take them to court if they do not. This is what the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland’s petition is about.

It calls for the right to a healthy environment to guarantee the highest standards for clean air; a safe climate; access to safe water and adequate sanitation; healthy and sustainably produced food; non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play; and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems. These are the six features identified by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, who passed a landmark resolution last October recognising, for the first time, that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.

The petition also calls for reforming legal expenses so that it is affordable for all of us to uphold environmental laws in court. Having affordable access to the courts is already required by the international treaty called the Aarhus Convention. However, Scotland’s legal system has been found to be in breach of that Convention. This is because the costs of taking legal action to protect the environment in Scotland are unaffordable. They can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, which prevents individuals, groups and organisations from pursuing action.

Finally, the petition calls for the creation of a specialist environmental court which is affordable and accessible for everyone, fair, timely and effective. The support for environmental courts has grown rapidly with nearly 1500 environmental courts worldwide. The hearing of environmental cases in one place would allow judges to develop experience in interpreting environmental law, supported by technical experts.

At a time when we are exceeding our planetary limits, the need for an effective human right to a healthy environment, and a court system which enables the public to stand up for and protect the environment, is more pressing than ever.

Please show your support for stronger environmental rights in Scotland: