Boyd, David R. The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: UBC Press, 2011.

What do the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Singapore, Zimbabwe Botswana, and Djibouti have in common?

They are among the 46 states that are members of the United Nations whose constitutions do not contain some type of environmental protection provision.

Another 127 members of the United Nations do have such provisions, the earliest being Italy (in 1948), Madagascar (in 1959) and Kuwait (in 1962).

Most recently in 2011 Bangladesh, Jamaica, Morocco, and South Sudan revised their constitutions to include environmental provisions.

Since the mid-1970s, more than one half of the world’s state constitutions have been written or rewritten.  When the Stockholm Declaration recognized the right to a clean environment, in 1972, no state constitutions had incorporated environmental rights provisions within their texts.  Only a few constitutions contained weak protections for the environment.   Since then 127 of the 193 states in the United Nations countries have added environmental provisions to their constitutions.

But, do these provisions matter?

In his new book Canadian environmental lawyer David R. Boyd argues that it is essential to get beyond the theoretical and philosophical discussion of whether states should provide for such a right, and begin to determine the effectiveness of such rights through an “even-handed assessment of factual evidence.”

Along with an analysis of the right to a healthy environment under international law, Boyd reviews the countries that have adopted environmental provisions and analyzes the different types of provisions:

  • Do they impose the duty upon the government? Are there individual environmental duties?
  • Does the constitution recognize a substantive right to a healthy environment?
  • What terms describe a healthy environment?
  •  Do these terms mean the same things?  adequate for human development, clean, safe, favorable, satisfying, natural, unpolluted, free from contamination, sustainable, good, diverse, harmonious and even benevolent.
  • What sorts of  procedural environmental rights might there be?

The central part of the book assesses the legal influence of the right to a healthy environment across the globe. Finally Boyd asks whether environmental provisions in constitutions actually influence environmental performance.

While readers often skip the appendices, these are well worth considering.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of this book will be appendix 2, a PDF list of all current environmental provisions from national constitutions, available only online.

Hidden away after the bibliographical references to books and articles is a list of legislation from around the world dealing with environmental issues (pp. 393-401), a list of international instruments dealing with the environment open parentheses (pp. 401-402), as well as a country by country list of national and international court decisions (pp. 403-421).

While the U.S Constitution contains no such environmental rights provisions, the Vermont Secretary of State’s web site notes a “proposal would amend the Constitution of the State of Vermont to provide a set of environmental rights, including clean water, a natural environment uncompromised by manufactured substances that are toxic and unhealthy, and enjoyment of nature, forests, wilderness, and wildlife (sent to Senate Natural Resources and Energy January 25, 2011).”

Some twenty years ago, during an earlier period of concern about the USA’s lack of environmental rights, our own Professor Emeritus Richard O. Brooks discussed the history and theory of this topic in “A Constitutional Right to a Healthful Environment.” 16 VT. L. Rev. 1063 (1991-92).

Could it be that Vermont would lead the way?

Carl Yirka