All is not lost: Baltic courts give reason to hope for the environment

7 mayo 2024

All is not lost: Baltic courts give reason to hope for the environment

As politicians across the EU look to dismantle the environmental progress of recent years, the highest courts, at least in Baltic Member States, are giving reason to hope: rising above the in-fighting and taking their role as the environment’s last line of defence seriously.  

On 8 April 2024, Latvia’s Constitutional Court joined the fray, using sustainability and precautionary provisions in its Constitution, as well as national transcriptions of EU strategic environmental impact assessment requirements, to do so. 

Years ago, the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture proposed reducing criteria for minimum tree diameter for final felling, and harvesting younger trees. National NGOs fought it in 2017 and again in 2020, but, using the excuse of ‘ensuring energy independence from Russia’, the amendments were adopted in 2022. By far the dominant harvesting method in Latvia is clearcuts: weakening the criteria would increase logging volumes and forest fragmentation, reduce average forest age and carbon sequestration capabilities over time, and irreversibly harm biodiversity. Three Latvian NGOs – Latvian Fund for Nature (EEB), Pasaules Dabas Fonds (WWF) and LOB (BirdLife) – therefore brought the issue before the Constitutional Court

In its first forest management case, the Court asserted that the NGO’s arguments were “not abstract” and that the amendments presented significant, known risks to the environment that had not been fully considered: no strategic environmental impact assessment had been carried out and no independent biodiversity experts involved. Furthermore, the principles of sustainability and of precaution enshrined in Latvia’s Constitution (Satversme) had not been considered. It therefore found the rules unconstitutional. NGOs are pleased to be backed by this authoritative decision, although they expect the government to slap together a strategic environmental impact assessment, and re-issue the problematic rules in a different guise.  

Estonia’s Supreme Court also takes its task of defending environmental laws to heart. In September 2023, it upheld local grassroots associations’ appeals against logging permits, issued by an automated system, covering two properties that overlapped a local green zone. The ruling set a helpful precedent, empowering local communities and ensuring their decisions carry weight. Decisions must also now be considered from the local planning perspective – closer to the people who benefit from the functions that forests provide, a true application of the subsidiarity principle. The Supreme Court (Riigikohus) found the automatic logging permits of the Environmental Board unlawful. 

In November 2024, the Supreme Court issued another decision regarding automated logging permits, this time in Natura 2000 areas. The Court ruled an environmental impact assessment is needed to issue such permits, and it did not consider this possible under an automated system that relies on algorithms. The Court found that the Environmental Board issued forest notifications illegally. 

Lithuania’s Supreme Administrative Court, also, has held the line. On 6 December 2023, it found that the Director of the State Forest Service unlawfully approved – without the mandatory Strategic/Environmental Impact Assessments – a forest management project allowing major deforestation within, and adjacent to Natura 2000 areas. After detailed consideration of EU law and national implementing rules, the Court stated that the need for impact assessment is triggered by the mere likelihood of a proposed activity’s significant impacts and that ‘activity’ goes beyond building construction. It found the plan infringed the EU’s Habitats Directive. Helpfully, national media has since amplified the Court’s message. 

As political and business attacks on the environment ramp up, it increasingly falls on courts to defend the broader public interest, where EU and national rules can be a powerful combination. In environmental cases, government administrations have long hidden behind restrictive rules of ‘standing’ (who can bring judicial challenge) to take no, or inadequate action. Help may be coming from the European Court of Human Rights’ recent forward-looking decision expanding access to justice in environmental cases. It may even inspire the Court of Justice of the EU to make long-overdue revisions to its own rules of standing, allowing EU environmental failures to be challenged.

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This article was edited by Nicole Gérard.

Categorías: News, Forest Watch, European forests

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