The UK government has its knuckles rapped for failing to meet its obligations under the Aarhus Convention.
These tempestuous times are biblical in their ferocity. Behemoth-sized waves are rising from the sea, while the heavens spew torrents of rain and floods overwhelm railway lines, bridges, fields, houses, towns, roads and other tokens of our precarious civilisation.
People are drowning, crops are rotting, waterborne sewage and pollutants are spreading disease.
It is a ‘natural’ disaster on a national scale, with politicians of all parties, even some who previously denied climate change, blaming global warming on man-made carbon emissions.
It is small wonder, then, that important developments in Europe, even ones regarding the protection of the environment, have slipped under our collective radar screens.
Last week, the UK government – not for the first time – had its knuckles rapped and costs awarded against it for failing to meet its obligations under the Aarhus Convention.
This convention, ratified by the UK in 2005, requires EU member states to allow citizens access to information about environmental matters, to participate in decision-making concerning environmental matters and to ensure access to justice in environmental matters.
It is this last requirement that has been the stumbling block for the UK government since it failed to act on a 2005 complaint from the Coalition for Access to Justice for the Environment about the high cost of legal action in British courts.
The UK government’s continued inaction on the issue of costs prompted the European Commission to refer it to Europe’s top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in 2011. The CJEU has now found that the UK’s costs rules in environmental litigation remain prohibitively expensive, in effect depriving citizens of one of the central planks of the Aarhus Convention – access to justice in environmental matters.
The CJEU, giving its judgment on 13 February 2014, ordered the UK government to pay its own costs and those of the European Commission.
James Thornton, chief executive of not-for-profit environmental law organisation ClientEarth, describes the Aarhus Convention as the Magna Carta of the environment.
He said: ‘This judgment is a ringing endorsement of the right of UK citizens to go to court to defend their environment. It comes at a crucial time when the UK government, with its planned reforms to judicial review, is attacking our democratic right to access to the courts.’
So what other developments around the protection of the environment have been drowned out by the rain hammering on our roofs and water seeping up through our floorboards?
The government earlier this week published a report examining the ‘balance of competences’ between the EU and the UK in the area of environment and climate change. Balance of competencies here means everything deriving from EU law that affects how the UK manages the environment and defines our response to climate change.
Business organisations, the Law Society and others contributed to the report. Some pointed to ‘the inherent tension between laws that protect the environment and the impact that those laws can have on businesses and others by imposing costs which might affect competitiveness’.
Others added that the costs could be ‘disproportionate’ when measured against the environmental benefits achieved.
Most respondents commented that the ‘main justifications for EU action’ were when there were cross-border environmental threats to be addressed and also to ensure a ‘level playing field for businesses operating in the single market’.
All pretty dry stuff (a rare commodity given the present weather conditions), but at least it shows that the EU and the UK are working together to protect the environment.
Too bad our government cannot stretch to complying with the Aarhus Convention, not to mention the EU’s Air Quality Directive (our polluted air is believed to cause 29,000 people a year to die prematurely).
But that is a story for another day, when the sweet Thames can again run softly and the Somerset Levels become navigable by foot once more.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer