The number of courts and tribunals specializing in environmental issues doubled during the past decade, prompted by increasingly complex regulations and growing concerns about natural resources, according to a new study.
There were a total of 354 environmental courts in 41 countries in that period, with about 170 created since 2005, according to the report, released yesterday by the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
"While such specialist courts and tribunals have been created from time to time, their accelerated growth is a 21st century phenomenon," the report says. "Complex, fragmented, and often conflicting aspects of environmental management and protection have made it difficult for governments, developers, communities and advocacy groups to achieve consistent and long-range sustainable development. This has resulted in pressures to streamline and rationalize the adjudication and enforcement process and increase access to justice."
The study was prepared by University of Denver law professor George Pring and his wife, Catherine Pring, a mediator specializing in environmental issues. In the United States, they counted dozens of city- and county-level environmental courts, as well as state-level courts in Vermont and Washington and federal courts at U.S. EPA and the Interior Department.
Dedicated environmental courts date to at least 1917, when Denmark created its Nature Protection Board, according to the report. Both Sweden and Finland founded courts the next year to settle cases involving the countries' water supplies.
There was then a boom in the creation of specialized environmental courts at the onset of the modern environmental movement in the early 1970s, followed by a lull that lasted until the past decade.
While many wealthier nations had already created environmental courts by the start of the new millennium, poorer nations lagged behind, said Lalanath de Silva, director of WRI's Access Initiative. Many developing nations, faced with a flood of environmental cases and a dearth of judges qualified to weigh in on the technical questions they raise, have concluded that specialty courts are a "just, quick and cheap" solution, he said.
The past five years saw the proliferation of environmental courts in China, which created 15 environmental courts in 2008 and 2009, and the Philippines, which started a network of 117 such courts in 2008. If the large Filipino network of environmental courts is excluded from figures, the number of courts worldwide increased by more than 55 percent since 2000.
Citizen groups and governments have typically pushed for the creation of environmental courts. In some developing countries, they have garnered support from industry groups concerned that rulings in standard courts could be swayed by "emotional considerations" rather than science, de Silva said. The Asian Development Bank has been a key backer.
Because some of the courts have been more effective than others, WRI sponsored the new study to "make sure that these tribunals are established in ways that allow them to learn from the positives and negatives of the current institutions," de Silva said.
"A green tribunal works really well if it's carefully crafted," de Silva said, "but that's not always the case."
Click here to read the report.