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OP-ED: In pursuit of environmental justice

  • Published at 01:35 am May 3rd, 2021
planet earth

What is the best way to punish those who harm the environment?

It is common knowledge to everyone that our contemporary world is one where the climate crisis is a severe issue, especially in light of recent news of Bangladesh recording the highest temperature in seven years. Self-centred anthropogenic pursuits of development, economic growth, and consumerism make people blind to the fact that we are all sharing the same finite planet with finite resources. 

In this scenario, some might say that it would be best to fight fire with fire if we want to curtail environmental repercussions -- by ensuring that any environmentally degrading anthropogenic activities are met with sanctions that endanger the profits that these companies are so intent on increasing. While this may seem like a good solution on paper, how effective is it in reality, specifically in the context of Bangladesh?

Laws and regulations that establish sanctions on any liable environmental criminals are a salient feature among the legal infrastructure of most countries to protect the quality of the environment. The importance of maintaining such standards and keeping the health of nature in check is a concern that countries are bound to abide by following the concerns raised in the 1992 Rio Declaration. 

Now, sanctions in the form of polluter pays principle, emission charges, taxation on polluting goods, and subsidization of green industries along with certain command and control regulations would ensure regulation of environmental parameters. 

For the most part, these are effective and get the job done, provided that the regulations are strictly enforced and monitored. However, there have obviously been multiple cases where it has backfired as well. 

To name a few examples, there have been cases where industries actually emitted less than the stated emission standards, which directly allowed them to continue production and freely pollute up until that last permissible unit. Similarly, such standards created markets allowing polluting industries to “trade” their emissions with those that were yet to meet their quota; this way they kept up operations while making lesser polluting industries pollute for the sake of profit. 

The problem with inefficient sanctions is also present where industries disregard them since paying the tax is a negligible loss compared to the profit, they make by carrying on with usual production.

While Bangladesh might not be entertained by such unique instances, our main issue lies within the simplest of evils -- ignorance and negligence. The Environmental Conservation Act 1995 very straightforwardly states all the sanctions and punishments that individuals and corporations alike can get into if environmental parameters are harmed, or limits violated. 

However, in reality there is very little implementation to carry out these ordinances. Mobility of administrative and authoritative bodies that can take action against offenders need to be vastly improved. Furthermore, to regulate and track any offences, a constructive monitoring body should be created and deployed to instill polluters with incentive to comply with the law. 

Analysts have deduced that a lack in funds, manpower, and resources perpetuate this problem. On top of this, the workforce that is currently available does not have sufficient knowledge, experience, or training on the scientific, technical, and social aspects of the sanctions to carry out their tasks adequately. There are also no operational rules to guide law enforcers or guidelines to correct behaviour.

However, pinning the blame on only the system would be very wrong as the other party is equally liable in ignoring the rules. Even when the Department of Environment sent out notices to polluting industries asking them to curtail emissions, a small number of industries replied to them after continued pursuit while a vast majority of industries straight up ignored the notice. 

On any reports or responses, corporations tend to either submit false positive reports or provide vague qualitative information that is highly misleading. Finally, the immense scale and complexity of the issues and industries remain key factors as well; it would be very difficult for even a productive unit to keep track of everything that goes on.

In a country where monitoring bodies are lax and rules are continuously bypassed and ignored, it is a challenge to address the laws that protect the environment. This however should serve as a major wake-up call for enforcement agencies to polish our current regulatory rules and structure and flesh out effective new strategies which shall serve to protect the environment. 

Environmental criminal liability sanctions can be a successful approach to protect nature given that they are efficiently enforced and upheld, and hence, should be used as a weapon to fight environmental degradation.

Ayushi Khan is a student and researcher at North South University.

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