Highlights from the ´Law and Climate Action´ Webinar | Lights on Aarhus

What is the Aarhus Convention and how is it different from the Aarhus Regulation? Is the EU living up to its obligations under the Convention or is it breaking international law? Why is the Regulation currently viewed as Kafkaesque and how can the EU’s revision process improve it? These were the kinds of questions that we shed light on last week during our first webinar “Law and Climate Action”, as part of the Lights on Aarhus project.

The Lights on Aarhus project is YEE’s campaign funded by the European Climate Foundation with the aim of raising awareness among and engaging youth on the topic of the Aarhus Regulation revision, and mobilising an advocacy campaign to ensure that access to environmental justice in the EU is strengthened in that revision process. This first webinar saw the public launch of the whole project and the introduction of the issue to youth.

The event was moderated wonderfully by YEE’s Liaison Officer on Green Europe, Paola Lupi, who explained some background to the subject and project. She then introduced our participants to the first speaker, Anne Friel, who leads ClientEarth’s work on environmental democracy in the EU. Anne explained how the Aarhus Convention is an international treaty signed in 1998 in order to empower people to protect the environment in court. Despite ratification by the EU, it is currently virtually impossible for a citizen to challenge the EU in EU courts of law when they breach environmental law. This means that EU decisions such as its approval of different pesticides, allowances to certain industrial plants to emit more than they should, and quotas of fish are all immune from public challenges in EU courts.

Anne also explained how the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) in 2017 thus found that the EU was in breach of its commitments under the Convention. However, the EU then became the first ever Party to refuse to endorse the ACCC’s findings against itself! Although it has since relented to revising the Aarhus Regulation, which is the piece of EU legislation which applies the Convention at the EU level, the European Commission’s proposal to do so still excludes a large number of EU decisions, including subsidies to fossil fuels. Just last month, the ACCC has advised that this proposal would thus mean that the EU will still continue to be in breach of its international law commitments and so Anne urged participants to lobby the Parliament and Council to improve it.

Participants then heard from our second speaker, Hana Begovic, the Director of Earth Advocacy Youth. Hana began by introducing her organisation, composed of young professionals who engage in youth-led policy work, education, and legal action. She talked about how today’s dominant narrative about nature is that it is an object to be commodified and exploited by humans, and how this centres on the idea that humans themselves are not also a part of nature but rather separate and superior to it. This understanding misses the interdependence of humans with nature and so Earth Advocacy Youth promote the practice of ecological literacy on topics such as Earth Jurisprudence, which claims that nature lives within us and around us because humans are nature too.

Next, we heard from another member of Earth Advocacy Youth, board member and jurist Jessica den Outer. Jessica explained how many of the key principles of the Aarhus Convention, such as access to justice and information or stakeholder engagement, are also common to Earth Advocacy Youth’s focus on the rights of nature. This approach moves away from an anthropological legal understanding of nature to one where nature itself has its own rights before the law. Jessica explained how rights of nature should be supported by youth activists because it can really serve as a tool for transformative change – instead of humans having to argue indirect environmental harm to themselves, they can act as a guardian for the environment and argue direct harm to nature itself.

Our last speaker was Hendrik Schoukens, an environmental lawyer and researcher at Ghent University. He began with a terrific parable in Franz Kafka’s book ‘The Trial’ about a man who wanted to gain access through an open doorway meant just for him, but is refused by a doorkeeper until he dies. He explained how this parable is very analogous to how you can only challenge EU decisions that are made for you and so, because environmental impacts are very general, most environmental NGOs have been unable to access justice properly through the Aarhus Regulation in the EU. Hendrik explained how even the Commission’s current proposal to revise the Regulation has a number of Kafkaesque features, which are illogical and can make the process unnecessarily longer and costlier.

The event concluded with reactions and discussion amongst our panellists and then answers to questions from our participants. It was clear from our speakers that the rights of nature have a role to play in environmental law and that, even if a stronger Aarhus Regulation will not solve all of the EU’s access to justice problems, it will definitely go a good distance in improving it and so this is a key moment to let youth voices be heard.

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