Children standing in a meadow on the hands on the green grass

The dead letter of EU environmental law

For the past two years, the European Environmental Bureau investigated, studied, interviewed and exposed limits or gaps between the theory and reality of EU environmental legislation.

Marie-Amélie Brun investigates how the EU’s world-class environmental laws are failing to protect nature sufficiently because of poor implementation.

The EU is a global leaders when it comes to environmental laws. For decades, the EU developed legislation that would protect nature, our health and our heritage. However, too often the implementation of these laws at the national level is inadequate, resulting in damage and high costs. The European Commission estimates that the correct implementation of our environmental laws could save the EU around €55 billion every year in health costs and direct costs to the environment.

Over the past two years, the EEB carried out a project that looked into the implementation of these laws: Implement for LIFE. Using our extensive pan-European network to gather information from actors on the ground, we discovered that one of the reasons for these implementation gaps was the shrinking role of NGOs. 

The EU and its member states are signatories of the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement that empowers environmental defenders. Thanks to the convention, citizens and NGOs have the right to access information, participate in public debate and decision-making, and access justice. 

But many of these legal rights are not actually enforced in many member states. Implement for Life focused on these gaps that ultimately result in poorer involvement of NGOs and then in the poor implementation of EU environmental laws. 

The grassroots of environmental law

NGOs are crucial actors when it comes to implementation. Thanks to their work on the ground and their contact with local power, they play a huge role in bringing together knowledge and practicality. 

Throughout the duration of the project, we noticed gaps in all three rights, leading to environmental damage and crimes. 

Many examples of these gaps have been featured in the reports published under the project as well as many solutions that would fill in these gaps and allow for the proper implementation of environmental laws. 

Considering the many challenges we face – including biodiversity loss, climate change, chronically polluted air, chemical exposure and waste pollution – it is high time to implement the laws we already have and work hard to create new laws that will create a frame for a more sustainable society.

Read more about the project:
Report – Access to Justice
Report – Public Participation 
Report – Access to Information 
Report – Environmental crimes
Summary report
Citizen’s report 
The harassment of environmental defenders in the EU – a case study report