EU Parliament backs citizens' legal challenges to protect environment

·2-min read

By Kate Abnett

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament on Thursday voted for changes to European Union law that would give the public more scope to challenge legally any EU decisions and laws that adversely affect the environment.

The proposed change still needs the approval of EU member states, which have already been rocked by a rise in legal action over concerns about climate change.

The EU is negotiating changes to its law enforcing the Aarhus Convention, a United Nations agreement that protects the public's access to justice in environmental matters, after a U.N.-appointed committee said in 2017 the EU was failing to properly enforce it.

The Parliament voted on Thursday to allow members of the public to challenge EU laws and decisions that could violate laws relating to the environment, whereas the current law allows only non-governmental organisations to do so.

If adopted, legal charity Client Earth said the change could allow public challenges to decisions to approve harmful pesticides, let cars breach emissions limits or to fund coal-fired power, for instance.

The parliament also said court proceedings must not be prohibitively expensive, as that could restrict the public's access to justice.

The European Commission said the changes could unleash a flood of legal challenges.

"There is a genuine risk that the system will be unable to cope and that effective case-handling becomes impossible," EU environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said.

European countries are feeling the effects of legal action over climate change. The German government this month toughened its climate targets, after a national court said its existing targets failed to protect the rights of young people.

Parliament's position is at odds with the smaller changes member states support. They say Aarhus challenges should remain limited to acts that breach "environmental law", and that some EU acts should be immune from such challenges, since the public can already challenge them in national or EU courts.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; editing by Barbara Lewis)