The recognition for the first time in an Irish court of a constitutional right to environmental protection “that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large” is a legal milestone. It is to be commended as a provision for the public good.
The High Court decision last week arose in a case brought by the environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), and emerged in spite of their challenge to planning permission for a new runway at Dublin Airport being dismissed. The right will add to the legal armoury for those living with the consequences of persistent environmental damage; citizens experiencing long-term pollution that is often a threat to their health; and people living with negative impacts of climate change where legally-binding measures and targets for reducing carbon emissions are not being adhered to.
A right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and wellbeing of citizens at large is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights
FIE had argued the proposed runway would result in additional greenhouse gas emissions which would increase the pace of climate change.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Max Barrett said: "A right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and wellbeing of citizens at large is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights". It is an indispensable existential right that is enjoyed universally, yet which is vested personally as a right under Article 40.3.1 of the Constitution, he found. "It is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced." The State had argued there was no unenumerated, or unwritten, right to an environment in the Constitution.
The Environmental Pillar – an alliance of environmental groups – had called for a referendum to give a constitutional right to environmental protection to the people of Ireland in its submission to the Citizens' Assembly on climate change. But this was not taken up in that body's recommendations to the Government. Instead, the right has become available via a different channel. It is a progressive move that will greatly assist those seeking to hold the Government and State accountable for their responsibilities on the environment and climate change.