How do we defend citizens' climate rights? Report and National Roundtable
The right to life, a healthy environment, social security and clean air guaranteed to every Bulgarian citizen, form a new category of rights - climate rights! Representatives of national and local authorities, academia and business took up their joint advocacy for the first time on 28 November 2023 at the House of Europe. The roundtable was held in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Waters (MoEW). The organizers from the BlueLink Foundation presented an analytical report called Our Climate Rights. The report findings launched a dialogue on climate rights between institutions, civil organizations and businesses.
The event and the expert report are part of the initiative Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment of the European network Justice and Environment, which is implemented with the support of the European Executive Agency for Education and Culture (EACEA) of the EU.
Issues like the cost of climate change damage, which countries are responsible for climate change, which countires are most vulnerable to climate change and whether they should be compensated, are among the most hotly debated topics during global climate meetings, said Minister of Environment and Waters Yulian Popov at the opening of the meeting via live streaming from Warsaw /pictured above/. Bulgaria fulfills its global climate commitments as an emitter through its commitments within the EU, the minister confirmed. He pointed out that the global impact of our emissions raises new questions that our society should engage with. In a modest, but visible way, Bulgaria is already participating in the global debate on climate and nature protection, including within the framework of the Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28) starting on November 30. This year, Bulgaria will have an unprecedented number of representatives there, Popov stressed.
Bulgarian law provides a solid basis for protecting climate rights, said Plamen Peev, PhD, senior expert and member of the steering committee of the European Justice and Environment Network. The right to a healthy and favorable environment is recognized as a fundamental citizen right according to Art. 55 of the Constitution of Bulgaria. This right implicitly includes the right to a favorable climate, Peev emphasized. Climate change also affects other basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to life (Art. 28), privacy (Art. 32) and property (Art. 17). These rights may be affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change.
A thorough analysis of the laws in Bulgaria and the EU, available in BlueLink's report, shows that the following groups of rights also fall within the scope of climate rights:
- Access to justice on environmental matters
- The right to clean air
- The right to appropriate climate adaptation
- The right to participate in climate impact assessment procedures for large investment projects and public authority plans/programs
- Natiopnal implementation of EU climate targets
- Corporate responsibility
One of the climate rights listed above -- access to justice -- is poised to change the dynamics of the fight against climate change according to this year's Global Climate Litigation Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The right to clean air is also climate related because all major air pollutants have an impact on climate and most air pollutants are also sources of greenhouse gases. The examples of successful climate cases in Bulgaria are namely in the area of clean air litigation in Sofia, Plovdiv and the Stara Zagora region. The connection between climate and clean air is established in Art. 55 of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), which states that clean air protects human health and prevents damage to society from changes in air quality, ozone depletion and climate change as a result of various human activities. According to Bulgaria's Clean Air Act (ACA), the right to clean air must be guaranteed by state and municipal authorities, said Peev.
The concept of climate rights can help create a broad coalition of like-minded people: climate migrants, children, women, future generations, etc. These are the conclusions of a specialized survey executed by BlueLink among more than 100 representatives of civil organizations, lawyers and representatives of communities affected by climate and environmental problems, said Polina Slavcheva, head of climate projects at BlueLink. Over 75% of the respondents express a willingness to assert their own or collective climate rights by informing the public about the consequences of climate change, participating in the creation of laws and policies, and even taking legal action.
Unlike civil society organizations, however, the general public seems to rely mainly on the government for climate change solutions, Slavcheva said, citing 2021 and 2023 European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and European Commission (EC) polls. Only 35% of Bulgarians in the EC survey say they take action to combat climate change, such as recycling or investing in energy efficiency measures in their households. At the same time, Bulgarians are aware the problem is serious: according to 77% of respondents, climate change is a crisis or a serious problem. The low likelihood to take climate change action may be explained by the lack of systematic and comprehensible information about climate policies. About ¾ of those interviewed by the ECFR in 2021 said they were not familiar with these policies. BlueLink's survey among civil society organisations also identified scarcity of information as a problem. Most respondents mentioned the lack of sufficient or reliable information on climate and climate policies and the difficult access to independent scientific expertise as key obstacles to exercising climate rights.
Reneta Koleva, Deputy Minister of Environment and Waters (pictured above with moderator and BlueLink executive editor Pavel Antonov) presented the framework of measures for climate change adaptation. There is a misconception in society that the implementation of adaptation measures is solely the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment and Waters, while in fact a wide range of institutions are involved, Koleva said. Currently, the Ministry is working on updating the framework law on climate (Climate Mitigation Act) and plans to set intermediate goals for reducing emissions for each economic sector until 2040. It is important for us to have intermediate goals in legislation because this creates predictability, said Koleva.
Lilia Bocheva, director of the Department of Meteorology at the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (NIMH), pointed out that there is a distinct trend in Bulgaria in the recent decades of increasing frequency and extremity of dangerous climatic phenomena like heat waves, extreme precipitation and droughts. If the average temperature in the rest of the world is now about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in Bulgaria and the entire Mediterranean region the trend points toward a much sharper increase in average temepreatures. Due to the increased frequency of extreme weather events in Bulgaria, NIMH scientists are often expert witnesses in court cases where they are asked to assess extreme weather events and the damage caused by them. Requests for independent evaluations in environmental and air pollution cases are also becoming more frequent.
Daniela Ilieva, inspector in the Main Directorate for Fire Safety and Protection of the Population at the Ministry of Internal Affairs (pictured above, left) said that natural hazards – floods, earthquakes, landslides, forest fires – are the largest group of hazards in Bulgaria according to Bulgaria's National Disaster Risk Profile. The document contains detailed information on risks by area and can be found on the website of the institution, which also plans to conduct civil defense training among all age groups in the next few years.
Businessman Rumen Karamikhalev told the audience how the steel industry -- among the most polluting ones -- can achieve carbon neutrality and gave participants hope that decarbonisation is achievable within the next few decades. Karamikhalev is the director of the steel corporation Ovako for Eastern Europe. Ovako has achieved carbon neutrality thanks to a combination of innovations. He emphasized that it is important that decarbonisation initiatives come from businesses and do not rely on state subsidies.
The BlueLink Foundation was established in 1998 by eight environmental organizations. BlueLink's mission is to help strengthen democracy and European values and to protect nature by countering attacks on civil society and human rights and opposing the intrusion of hate speech into politics, society, the media and the Internet. Our activities include both research on anti-democratic trends and supporting civil society for better cooperation and strategic use of the Internet.
The roundtable and this article are part of the Justice and Environment (J&E) network's initiative, called Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment and executed with the support of the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). All views and opinions expressed are the authors’ only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union (EU).