A recent study published by the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution finds that laws designed to protect the environment and biodiversity from the harmful impacts of human activities are under assault around the globe.
In Australia, for instance, the federal government recently granted exemptions from the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in order to allow habitat for the grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), a species listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, to be cleared in Batemans Bay, New South Wales.
Meanwhile, Brazil amended its constitution last December to freeze public spending on biodiversity protection, scientific research, education, and health care for the next two decades. In recent years, mining companies in Indonesia have succeeded in gaining exemptions from a law banning open-pit mining in protected forest areas after threatening investor-state dispute settlement litigation, a tactic increasingly being used by corporations to force governments into letting them disregard environmental laws. And in the United States, of course, the new Trump Administration has used a number of executive actions to roll back climate policies and environmental protections adopted under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Despite all of these attacks on environmental laws, the international team of researchers behind the study — which includes ecologists with Spain’s Oviedo University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences as well as legal scholars with the Netherland’s Tilburg University and Sweden’s Uppsala University — note that Earth’s wild fauna and flora would be far worse off if it wasn’t for the legal protections they are already afforded, such as biodiversity laws that control the exploitation of wildlife and designate certain areas as off-limits to human industry in order to protect vital habitat.
“Legal instruments are unique because they are binding and enforceable tools constraining human impacts on the environment,” the researchers write in the study, “compared with other conservation approaches, such as scientific publications or NGO (non-governmental organization) campaigns, which greatly depend on the willingness of authorities and private actors to respond and can easily be ignored.”
But these laws face constant tests as proponents of economic development seek to weaken their ability to regulate human activities that impact the natural world. The researchers are maintaining a list of attempts to weaken biodiversity laws by country on a github repository and invite conservationists, scientists, and the general public to make contributions (criteria for inclusion on the list is available on the github page).
“The amount and variety of tactics we found were really incredible,” Guillaume Chapron, an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We detected at least 40 different ones. Some of them overt attacks, others more subtle, but all of them aimed at weakening the effectiveness of laws designed to conserve and restore biodiversity.”
Biodiversity legislation can be undermined through a variety of public policy processes, from executive actions and direct changes to legislation to constitutional amendments and international agreements. And while laws may remain unchanged on paper, there can always be changes in how they’re enforced via evolving jurisprudence, administrative discretion, and political interference or indifference, Chapron and his co-authors note in the study.
“[W]e argue that effective environmental legislation must at a minimum act as legal boundaries that prevent human activities from reaching and breaching planetary boundaries, defined as the safe space for mankind to operate within,” the researchers write. Laws are manmade and can be undone by other laws, they add, but “Planetary boundaries on the contrary have a fundamentally different nature: they are immutable facts emerging from the bio-geophysics of planet earth and are immune to political pressure.”
In order to push back on this anti-environmental legislation trend, Chapron and team call for greater collaboration between lawyers and scientists.
“There are many opportunities for cooperation between legal and natural scientists, and not just in the writing of academic papers. Some of the most important environmental litigation has been initiated by academics, like the famous snail darter case in the United States,” Chapron said.
“Cooperation and communication between conservation scientists and the legal community is necessary so neither side is caught unaware by legal changes that have a destructive impact on the environment. Too often, those who would be in the best position to advocate for good environmental laws or policies don’t know about dangerous legal changes before it’s too late.”