A not-so-just transition? Why the Social Climate Fund needs access to justice

The Social Climate Fund aims to provide tens of billions of euros of funding to bolster vulnerable households and micro-businesses against the costs of the green transition. But without access to justice providing the door to enforcement, the Regulation risks flopping. MEPs must step up and win this right for citizens in Parliament votes on the SCF next week, write Margarida Martins and Ruby Silk.

Access to justice in climate law 

Access to justice allows citizens and green groups to take their governments to court and force them to make good on their environmental and climate commitments. However, EU law does not currently require Member States to guarantee the public the right to access to justice in environmental matters, even though this is an obligation under the Aarhus Convention. Member States’ implementation of the Aarhus Convention is uneven and often flawed, leaving a need for access to justice to be guaranteed in individual EU environmental legislation, such as the EU Social Climate Fund Regulation.

The Social Climate Fund: A brief recap 

The Social Climate Fund (SCF) is a legislative proposal that the Commission presented in 2021, alongside the rest of the Fit for 55 package, under the European Green Deal. The aim of the SCF is to help vulnerable households, micro-businesses and transport users meet the costs of the green energy transition, and it intends to provide over €72 billion in EU funding for this purpose over the 2025-2032 period. 

The SCF is now being discussed in the European Parliament and is going to be voted on next week. Proposals to include articles on access to justice and public participation will be considered. It is very important that MEPs vote YES to these proposals. Here’s why…

Putting justice in the just transition

Access to justice articles are needed throughout the Fit for 55 legislation. They strengthen the enforcement and provide remedies for breaches of climate legislation, by ensuring that Member States’ authorities are accountable to their own citizens in their national courts, rather than leaving citizens dependent on the EU institutions to ensure that Member States make their necessary contributions. 

The Social Climate Fund, like the whole Fit for 55 Package, is crucial to achieving the EU’s climate targets along with a fair, green transition. Through an article on access to justice in the SCF Regulation, it will be possible to challenge a Member State’s Social Climate Plan and address its failures to comply with the SCF Regulation. This failure may relate to the submission and amendments of the national Social Climate Plans, the use of financial resources for a just transition, national contributions to the total estimated costs, and information, communication and publicity activities (such as providing information to the media and the public on the origin of EU funding and how it is being used.) 

Access to justice in practice 

Voting in favour of including the access to justice amendments in the SCF Regulation would create an added layer of accountability for governments and empower all of us to take legal action when climate promises are broken (rather than just pointing the finger in frustration.)

Firstly, it would allow people to challenge, for example, the content of the Social Climate Plans that each Member State must submit to the Commission. It is important for citizens to be able to challenge these plans, since they will determine the investments and measures that shape the green transition and the support given to vulnerable people. Secondly, it would allow the public and NGOs to challenge the way in which the plans were made. For example, if stakeholder input was completely ignored.  Lastly, citizens could also go to court if public authorities fail to keep data relevant to the SCF publicly available and up to date.

Furthermore, an article on access to justice would oblige Member States to provide the public practical information on how to access administrative (carried out by the public administration) and judicial (carried out by a court) review procedures.

An article on access to justice would not, however, affect Member States power to decide when decisions may be challenged and under what circumstances, as long as they are consistent with the aim of giving the public concerned wide access to justice. This objective of giving the public wide access to justice means that NGOs promoting environmental protection should qualify as having sufficient interest; a fact that cannot be taken for granted!

Time for Parliament to step up 

The EEB calls upon the European Parliament Committees on Employment and Social Affairs and on the Environment to vote in favour of Access to Justice and Public Participation Amendments in next week’s vote on the Social Climate Fund.  

The EU Commission, in its 2020 Communication on improving access to justice in environmental matters in the EU and its Member States, recognised the absence of EU rules guaranteeing public rights to access to justice and called on the Council and the Parliament to introduce explicit provisions in legislation such as the EU Social Climate Fund. Civil society is calling for it as well. It is now up to the European Parliament to step up and answer this call, and win these rights for citizens in the upcoming vote on the SCF.