The Proliferation of Constitutional Rights to Environment

Constitutional rights to a healthy environment are recognized in many national constitutions, with over 90 national constitutions recognizing some form of the right since the mid-1970s. About two-thirds of the constitutional rights refer to health and one-quarter refer to the right in terms of an ecologically balanced environment; alternative formulations include rights to a clean, safe, favourable or wholesome environment. Africa and Latin America have in particular seen the proliferation of such rights. With the recent adoption of the right to a healthy environment in the Tunisian Constitution, over 30 African countries have now incorporated such a right in their constitutions. For example, section 24 of the South African Constitution provides that:

Everyone has the right— ¬

a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that— ¬i. prevent pollution and ecological degradation; ii. promote conservation; and iii. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

Experts have identified many potential benefits of adopting a constitutional environmental right, including that the recognition of such rights can: lead to the enactment of stronger environmental laws; provide a safety net to protect against gaps in statutory environmental laws; raise the profile and importance of environmental protection as compared to competing interests such as economic development; and create opportunities for better access to justice and accountability.

Further Information

See Report of Independent Expert on the regional consultation on constitutional environmental rights, Johannesburg, 23-24 January 2014, available at: See also David Richard Boyd, The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment (UBC Press 2012); James R. May and Erin Daly, Global Environmental Constitutionalism (Cambridge University Press 2014).