Nature and Biodiversity

Why having a clean and healthy environment is a human right

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It's a human right to live in a healthy, clean and sustainable environment. Image: UNSPLASHAngela Benito

Ty Greene
Project Lead, Health Equity, World Economic Forum
David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum

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  • The WHO forecasts that climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
  • After being first debated in the 1990s, the UN Human Rights Council declared that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.
  • Leading civil society voices told us why this is so crucial to ensure a healthy environment for all.

On 8 October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council declared that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right, with 43 votes in favor and 4 abstentions. The measure was first debated during the 1990s, and the new resolution follows decades of advocacy from various civil society groups.

The WHO forecasts that climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, from factors such as malnutrition, malaria and heat stress, and that the direct costs will be between USD 2-4 billion per year by 2030. More than a quarter of the planet’s population rely on forests for their livelihood, while 1.2 billion people in tropical countries rely on nature for their basic needs.

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Following the declaration, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said: “Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social and environmental policies that will protect people and nature.”

We asked leading civil society voices what they think is needed from government, business and civil society to take action and mobilize efforts around ensuring and protecting a clean environment for all. Here’s what they said:

We need to reframe our relationship to nature

Gopal Patel, Co-Founder & Director, Bhumi Global

A reframing of our relationship with the natural world is needed in order to ensure we can provide everyone with a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. For too long we have artificially separated ourselves from nature. We’ve placed an artificial divide between ourselves and the natural world. Our politics, economic models and modern lifestyles reflect this.

This is not natural, and as we are seeing, not healthy or sustainable for the planet or for humanity. The human species is inextricably interconnected with nature. Throughout history, and in all parts of the world, nature is a common denominator. It is the basis of our civilizations, cultures and ways of life. A return to this way of thinking needs to be the basis of any meaningful action to restore the environment, address the climate crisis, and put nature on the path to recovery.

A social dialogue is needed

Kitso Phiri, Executive Secretary, Botswana Mine Workers Union

Realization of the right to a clean and hazardous free environment requires commitment to social dialogue by tripartite partners in reconciling economic and social interests. Although the laws generally make it mandatory for businesses to remedy environmental impacts caused by their economic activities, weak government regulatory mechanism makes enforcement an onerous exercise. These challenges are even more pronounced in the case of multinational enterprises. An equally weak civil society is disabled from monitoring the level of compliance with environmental obligations and provide meaningful contributions to environmental policy formulation and management.

Therefore, states should strengthen their environmental management policies and regulations; they should build capacities of civil society and government entities; provide additional funding for training and education of social partners; establish a tripartite social dialogue forums on environmental protection, inclusive of civil society.

A game-changer for people and the planet

Monica Iyer, Human Rights Officer, Environment and Climate Change Team, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Human Rights Council’s recognition that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right can be a game-changer for people and the planet.

But there is much more needed to make this right a reality for all. States must advance efforts to implement the right working hand-in-hand with civil society, businesses and other stakeholders. They must take urgent environmental action, backed by adequate finance, and support a just transition to a sustainable, human rights-based economy. Businesses should integrate environmental considerations in human rights due diligence processes, fully accounting for how the environmental effects of their activities can also affect human rights.

Those with power and access in fora where environmental policy is being developed, like COP26, should elevate the voices and leadership of affected individuals and communities, who are frequently excluded despite often having the most at stake and the best understanding of effective solutions. They should also promote and accept accountability for the harms caused by environmental damage.

The lives of women and vulnerable communities depend on clean air and clean water for all

Kahea Pacheco, Co-Director, Women’s Earth Alliance

An estimated 240 acres of natural habitat is destroyed every hour. Women and girls bear the brunt of this environmental degradation. While ~30% of humanity does not have access to safe drinking water, UNICEF acknowledges the 200 million hours that women and girls spend collecting water daily as a “colossal waste of their valuable time.” Evidence shows women's participation and decision making in management of local forests significantly improves forest conditions and conservation. And, leadership by Indigenous women, who have sustainably stewarded our natural world for generations, is crucial to preserving life without perpetuating the undue burden on already vulnerable communities.

Economic recovery and environmental action can go hand in hand

Jennifer Morris, Chief Executive Officer, The Nature Conservancy

The connection between human wellbeing and nature is indisputable. Governments, businesses and civil society must collaborate on every level to protect the ‘best’ of what is left on Earth and at sea, and improve areas of food production, energy siting, fishing and infrastructure planning. There is a clear path to funding this transformation by reducing ineffective subsidies and supply chain practices, producing new sources of funding and investing in a manner that pays dividends for nature.

In fact, we can close nearly half the biodiversity funding gap with no new funding, by reducing the flow of capital to harmful behaviors and shifting it toward activities that benefit nature. If done thoughtfully, economic recovery and environmental action can go hand in hand, leading to healthier, more prosperous lives.

This is a clarion call for public engagement and accountability

Amali Tower, Founder & Executive Director, Climate Refugees

The pandemic has made clear how shared our environment truly is, and also how unequal. Rich, high emitting countries that have benefited from the forces that created climate change are insulating themselves from those effects, in similar ways to the pandemic. This is a moral issue, but also one of justice. The most urgent changes needed are from these governments – crucially, the G20 countries – to reduce their emissions, which accounts for a staggering 80% of global emissions, and to fully transition to green economies. These countries need to grant, not loan, urgent climate adaptation finance that developing countries have long awaited so as to develop sustainably and build resiliency to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on their populations, many of whom are on the move. They also require parallel loss and damage climate finance to avert and minimize effects, and as compensation for the irreversible damage, forced migration and displacement.

Governments must also ratify and update their laws to uphold the right to a healthy environment to its full extent, including holding businesses, particularly extractive industries compliant. Environmental pollution and climate change have shown to be effective issues in empowering people to action, and climate related litigation has proven effective in Germany and the Netherlands, and in individual rights, where in France, pollution was a factor in determining a migrant’s residency rights. Civil society must seize this opportunity as a clarion call to mobilize public engagement and hold governments to account, where the greatest hope is in the resilient Global South and youth, pointing the way forward.

The right to a healthy environment offers hope to those most impacted

Katharina Rall, Senior Researcher, Environment & Human Rights, Human Rights Watch

The adoption of the resolution recognizing the right to a healthy environment could offer some hope to many communities around the world already hard-hit by environmental degradation and climate change. To make the enjoyment of the right a reality for those most impacted, governments should recognize the right at the national level and develop strong environmental protection laws and policies to safeguard the rights of at risk populations. This includes requiring businesses to comply with environmental and human rights standards, for example through mandatory climate change due diligence regulations, and ensuring broad participation in environmental decision making by civil society groups and impacted populations – including protecting environmental defenders under threat or attack.

Businesses should comply with existing laws and ensure that their operations, including their global value chains, do not negatively affect the environment or violate the rights of nearby communities, including through rigorous environmental and human rights due diligence. They should stop efforts to silence environmental advocates, for example through baseless nuisance lawsuits—known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs—and align their business models with international environmental and human rights standards.

We need to reframe our relationship to nature A social dialogue is neededA game-changer for people and the planetThe lives of women and vulnerable communities depend on clean air and clean water for allEconomic recovery and environmental action can go hand in handThis is a clarion call for public engagement and accountabilityThe right to a healthy environment offers hope to those most impacted

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