The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment was a turning point for environmental protection and international law. It saw the emergence of global environmental cooperation as a concept and the creation of new alliances and divisions, particularly between the Global North and South. It was also a critical moment for rights-based movements and saw the pioneering of legal activism, and recognition of environmental quality as a precondition for the enjoyment of basic human rights.
For the People’s Republic of China, environmental protection had its roots in participation in Stockholm. In 1973, Beijing was host to its first national conference on environmental protection. Since then, a suite of environmental laws has provided for public participation in environmental decision-making. Non-state actors in China — from journalists to NGOs, neighbourhood associations to legal defenders — were important in driving these changes, pushing for greater access to environmental information, rights to participate and access to remedy.
Around the world, bottom-up approaches and civil society actors play a crucial role in holding governments to account for and mobilizing justice for people affected by the impacts of climate change. At the same time, the world is becoming more authoritarian. According to the International Idea’s Global State of Democracy report, for the fifth consecutive year, the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction exceeds the number of countries moving in a democratic direction. For 15 years in a row, Freedom House has recorded an annual global decline in civic rights and freedoms, exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions.
Nevertheless, “even in places without much people power, championing environmentalism can work”, as Greenpeace campaigner Li Shuo pointed out in a recent piece in The Economist. The power of public participation and grassroots activism have shaped the environmental agenda in the past and need to work again if the world is to halt the alarming loss of biodiversity worldwide and keep global warming within 1.5°C.
Recognising this, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, China Dialogue Trust and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, convened researchers, legal activists, policymakers, and environmental campaigners, in conjunction with the UN Stockholm+50 Conference in June 2022, to discuss what role access to information, public participation, and rights-based litigation play in China today, and what role grassroots activism plays around the world to advance the right to a healthy environment.
Read the meeting reports with key points and outcomes of the discussions here: