Why the human right to a healthy environment is good for people, progress and our planet

© Luis Barreto / WWF-UK

Marco Lambertini, Director General WWF International and Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive, Birdlife International

We are in the midst of an unprecedented planetary emergency. Climate change, pollution and the loss and degradation of nature is not only threatening other species in far-away places, but the basic human rights of everyone on the planet. Over 80% of UN Member States already recognise the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. It is imperative that the UN’s Human Rights Council — sitting in its 48th session right now — answers the calls from governments, businesses and civil society around the world and makes this a universal right.

Across our two organisations, we have the privilege of working on every continent on the earth with a presence in over 100 countries. We see inspiring examples daily from individuals, fellow civil society organisations, the private sector and governments to take better care of this fragile, beautiful place that is our home.

However, despite these efforts and all that we know today about the deep connections between a healthy environment and the ability of people everywhere to lead healthy, dignified lives, nature is being destroyed globally at unprecedented rates. The blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model has pushed the natural world to its limits while also fueling growing social inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest example, but the list of proof points of our unbalanced relationship with nature is long and underlines not only the gravity of the situation but also how some people and communities are impacted more severely than others.

We can better address these interconnected crises, by recognising the fundamental link between them: that a healthy environment is a universal human right. This is the basis on which we can make the progress we must to achieve sustainable economies and just societies.

Human rights are intertwined with the environment

The human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment holds two key dimensions. It recognises that adopting a human rights based approach is one of the critical and essential ways to equitably and effectively protect the environment; and that all human rights depend on a healthy planet and biosphere that sustains us all.

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

The Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment acknowledges the interdependence of human rights and environmental protection. On the one hand, the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment — encompassing clean and balanced ecosystems, rich biodiversity and a stable climate — recognises that nature is a keystone of a dignified human existence, in line with a wealth of scientific evidence linking human wellbeing to functions of the natural world, like pollination. On the other hand, the exercise of human rights is key to the effective protection of the environment.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, reminds us that recognising the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment “is not a magic wand we can use to solve all of our challenges”, rather, “it’s a catalyst for better actions.” In a world where complaints on environmental harms arising from economic activity have been spiralling across multiple jurisdictions and where air pollution kills more than 10 million people every year, it is imperative that UN Member States universally recognise the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Why universal recognition is important

“The right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment could prove to be the most important human right of the 21st century.” David Boyd, Voices for a Living Planet, Living Planet Report 2020

Universal recognition holds multiple benefits for people, businesses and nature. First, it would fill a gap in the international human rights framework so that all people, everywhere enjoy this right. It would create common ground on which to strengthen our understanding and actions to respond to the interlinked crises of climate change, nature loss, environmental degradation and environmental and social injustices.

Boyd’s research has shown that countries with the right to a healthy environment — or other environmental mandates — in their constitutions tend to have stronger environmental policies in general. Evidence indicates that recognition of this right causes improved environmental performance, including cleaner air, lower emissions of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases, and improved access to clean water. It has been used to protect endangered species and vital ecosystems, from sea turtles to mangroves. Countries with a legal framework that protects the right to a healthy environment are more likely to score better on metrics of sustainable development, according to studies by economist Chris Jeffords of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Universal recognition would also have a positive impact on the behaviour of businesses via-a-vis human rights, environmental protection and corporate accountability and responsibility more broadly, making clear their responsibilities as duty-bearers and giving depth to the growing corporate Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria discourse and practice. But it would also, according to a recent statement by the B team, serve as an important catalyst to protect our natural capital and create the conditions through which business and communities can thrive sustainably.

© WWF / Simon Rawles

Finally, universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, will enhance awareness, civic and legal action on environmental and social justice issues. The joint call to governments, now supported by over 1350 organisations across 75 countries, is an inspiring example of how civil society organisations are also coming together across traditional sectors to work together on what is now understood to be a common and urgent agenda. Similarly, BirdLife International has mobilised greater public awareness with its 115 national NGO partners in their communities through its 1Planet1Right.org campaign, which is endorsed by David Boyd and other leading international voices. We know that popularising understanding of the right among people everywhere strengthens the likelihood of governments acting.

Swift action for people and planet

We salute the determination of the Core Group of countries — Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland — in leading the way to the adoption of the UN resolution on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. And we call on all UN Member States to show their unequivocal support by ensuring its swift passage at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Recognising this universal right is the right step forward for people, for progress and for our planet.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.