We have entered an era of radical reform. People are waking up to the climate emergency which we now face and the extreme changes that need to be made to safe proof our future. On the contrary, it is often viewed as a luxury to attempt to tackle these issues. People tend not to view environmental justice and social justice as the same issue.
For example, Extinction Rebellion is mainly made up of middle class individuals who have more time to focus solely on tackling climate change. However, it is not a first world problem. Justice for our planet and justice for all people are two profound conversations that are occurring simultaneously, but often in different rooms. However, they are intrinsically the same issue as global environmental effects, and lack of access to environmental resources, tend to affect the poorest and most vulnerable people the hardest.
Globally, we are going to have to make serious commitments to change in order to stop global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees. Environmental policies pursued in isolation can damage progress towards social goals and vice versa. Therefore, we must view them as tackling the same issue and both public and private sectors have to commit to environmental justice with the aim of benefitting everyone.
20% of the UK live in poverty. 8 million adults. 4 million children. 1.9 million pensioners. Yet we are one of the richest countries in the world. Environmental justice’s two basic premises are first: that everyone should have the right and be able to live in a healthy environment, with access to enough environmental resources for a healthy life; and second that it is predominantly the poorest and least powerful people who are missing these conditions.
The UK is not the only one suffering. Far from it. In fact, the UK causes environmental injustice in other countries through its importation of vast quantities of raw materials. A report for the World Economic Forum highlighted that the UK’s ‘ecological footprint’ - the total amount of land a country is appropriating in order to support its economy is equivalent to an area over ten times the size of the UK, the 8th worst out of 122 countries surveyed. This forces other countries globally to suffer water contamination and forest degradation. Therefore, whilst we are among the frontrunners for championing environmental change globally, we have a long way to go ourselves. With environmental rights must come environmental responsibilities.
Moving forward, using our legal system will be imperative in obtaining environmental and social justice. Entwining the Human Rights Act and the Arhus Convention has the potential, if carefully executed, to enhance the affinity between respect for human rights and environmental protection. It allows challenges to unjust decisions affecting social and environmental issues made by both the public and private sector. For example, building a busy road in a poor area could be seen as an infringement of a human right and a direct contravention to the Arhus Convention if the correct considerations had not been given. These two provide a useful framework for future legislation, but as our society and environment rapidly change, we need stronger protections in place.
Drastic change is needed from every country globally and consideration given to all aspects of society. Environmental issues should be a critical core element of achieving social justice goals, rather than as a set of priorities which conflict with social goals. The road to environmental and social justice is not a long one as we do not have the luxury of time. The issue is, unfortunately, in the hands of political leaders. However, we have the benefit of general public attitudes shifting and there seems to be the general consensus that there is no time left for debate.
Blog by Jenny Scott, Trainee Solicitor.