Speech by Belinda GOTTARDI, Italy (L, SOC/V/DP - SOC/G/PD), Environment, Part II

Check against delivery - Seul le prononcé fait foi

A fundamental right to the environment: a matter for local and regional authorities. Towards a green reading of the European Charter of Local Self-Government

Dear members,

In the area of environmental protection, the motto “think global, act local” is particularly relevant. In fact, the legal framework and regulatory policies and decisions on environmental matters are often adopted internationally, by national governments. Let me just mention as an example the UN Sustainable Development Goals, without enumerating various international conventions on hazardous waste, the ozone layer, climate change, atmospheric pollution and human rights.  However, actions to fulfil those obligations are implemented not only at the national level but also, if not to say mostly, at the regional and local level.

The European Charter of Local Self-Government provides the basic legal framework for the protection of local self-government. However, it does not expressly mention the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment which, in fact, is not yet enshrined in either the European Convention on Human Rights or in any other international legally binding instrument.

In other words, while grassroots’ authorities play a crucial role in environmental protection and the fight against climate change, the Charter does not give any special or enhanced protection to their right to be consulted on those matters and effectively participate in relevant decision making. Yet today, we can all agree that good local governance entails that the protection of the environment is systematically taken into consideration in our daily business.

We believe that this aspect should be reflected in the normative arsenal of the Council of Europe. First, we recommend adopting a ‘green’ approach to reading the Charter. This entails empowering local and regional authorities to take a more active role in fighting climate change and affording them greater support as they deal with its consequences.  For example, if we take Articles 3, 4 and 9, local authorities should have a fair share of competences to tackle environmental issues at local level, necessary funding and some leeway to perform those competences effectively. Secondly, we suggest offering additional legal protection to the right of local and regional authorities to be consulted and to participate in decision making at the state level on the protection of the environment, within their existing remits.

Given the importance of resolving environmental issues for good governance, we suggest supplementing the Charter with a second additional protocol on the environment.

In the same way as the Additional Protocol to the Charter has supplemented it with the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of local authorities, the second additional protocol could enshrine the right of local authorities to participate in decision making on environmental matters.

In our view, this would also lead to better decisions and better-quality governance both at national and local levels.

I know that it is probably too early to speak about the content of such a protocol, before the Committee of Ministers gives a follow up to our proposal, but the following elements could be envisaged. For example, the protocol could incite states to respect the principle of subsidiarity in the division or environment-related competences and ensure their adequate funding. It is obvious that the cost of delivery of services related to environmental norms at the local level will continue to rise and local authorities should be able to cope with that. In sum, the Protocol could seek to establish enabling conditions for subnational authorities to tackle climate change.

In the draft resolution, we therefore suggest asking the Congress statutory bodies to contribute to the elaboration of an Additional Protocol to the Charter. This should be done in close cooperation with the European Committee on Democracy and Governance (CDDG) or another CoE body tasked with drafting this instrument. This is, of course, subject to a subsequent decision of the Committee of Ministers as I said earlier.

Furthermore, the draft resolution includes a series of other measures whichsubnational authorities could adopt to tackle the climate crisis and build resilience of their communities to the impact of climate change, such as:

-        strengthening citizen participation in environmental decision making at the subnational level.

-       enhancing intermunicipal and interregional co-operation in tackling climate change and conserving the environment.

-       joining national or international environment protection networks and associations.

In addition, in the draft recommendation, we call on the governments of Council of Europe member States to adopt a “green” approach towards reading the Charter. This would acknowledge the critical role of local and regional authorities in responding to environmental challenges.

We also encourage national authorities to take any other appropriate measures to support local governments in implementing their environmental obligations using a human rights-based approach.

Finally, we invite the Committee of Ministers to support the elaboration of an additional protocol to the Charter on environmental matters. We consider that our proposal:

-       does not entail a formal qualification of the right to the environment as a human right, but it connects it to good governance;

-       it would be a text with a preventive and not repressive approach, which could be welcomed also to reduce the backlog of the European Court of Human Rights on this matter;

-       it would constitute a concrete step in the actions undertaken by the Council of Europe to fight against global warming and to protect the environment.

I hope that you will adopt the draft resolution and recommendation, which will lay the groundwork for our future actions in response to the environmental challenges with the urgency and seriousness which this critical issue requires from all of us.

We are ready to take your questions.

Thank you for your attention.