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Healthy environment: ensuring it matters
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Healthy environment: ensuring it matters

  1. Kent BuseDirector,
  2. Healthier SocietiesProgram1,
  3. Sofia GruskinDirectorInstitute on Inequalities in Global Health2

  1. 1The George Institute for Global Health, Imperial College London

  2. 2University of Southern California

Kent Buse and Sofia Gruskin reflect upon the recognition of the universal right of everyone to a healthy environment. They outline steps to accelerate this right’s realization, especially for those most at risk from the effects of climate change.

We must now collectively use all the tools available to us to reflect on the lessons learned from COP26. Although it seems obvious to have a concern for human rights, the COP26 negotiations failed to recognize the impact of climate change on the rights and health of vulnerable populations and to provide the legal accountability and monitoring mechanisms that a human right framing can provide. A landmark resolution was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), on 8 October 2021. It confirmed the right to a safe and healthy environment and called for cooperation from countries around the globe to implement it.1

1972 saw the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm recognize the need for an environment that allows dignity and well-being. This right has been recognized in many countries’ national legislations, and there has been a steady increase of support for the concept of this fundamental right. The Maldives, along with a few states that are particularly vulnerable, were initially the champions of this right. However, two UN special rapporteurs later provided leadership and support. A civil society campaign followed, and the UN Secretary-General and 15 UN agencies supported the idea earlier this year.1

The resolution will be based on the recognition of the rights to participate in relevant decision-making processes, to have access environmental information, and to seek and secure an effective remedy for breaches.2It encourages states, as part of fulfilling their human right obligations and commitments to the environment, to build their capacities and adopt appropriate policies, including those that respect biodiversity and ecosystems.

The recognition by the Human Rights Council is therefore important. It is a step towards climate justice and it is concrete. It will only be effective if it is used. Despite the fact that COP26 did not include human rights in its final outcome document, Council adoption gives advocates and those who care about the environment a strong hook to use. A right means that states are legally responsible for their actions and inactions. AIDA, an international organization, has used the power of international legal in litigation and other activities. This right can be used all over the world to hold governments accountable for planetary health.

Despite the resistance of some governments to the COP negotiation, and more generally, respect, preservation, and fulfillment of human right are essential for a healthy environment. You only need to think about how the negative effects of climate changes are felt most by those who are already experiencing discrimination and marginalisation. These include people of indigenous origin, minorities, rural workers, rural workers, people with disability, women, people belonging to LGBTQI communities, the poor, as well as people who live in multiple of these intersecting realities. Climate discrimination can have significant impacts on people’s ability and capacity to fulfil other human rights, including the right to food, health, education, employment housing, work, water, and housing. Some of the urgency for realizing this belatedly recognized right is evident in the climate emergency, toxic pollution, the loss of biodiversity, their sequelae, and their pernicious effects on the most vulnerable.

Although it is not binding, the resolution still has significant potential. A healthy environment is essential for health and well-being. The resolution outlines a rights-based approach that can help institutions of power to have new conversations about the links between their actions and the environment and health. This can lead to more aggressive actions to address environmental determinants and new standards for environmental protections. This could include protections for individuals, such as climate migrants. Recognizing a right at the global level may also encourage legislation at the regional, national, or local levels. This will ultimately support civil society to hold governments accountable. This rights framing can protect the work of environmental defenders or campaigners, creating a virtuous cycle that simultaneously protects both people and the planet.3

Even though the rights to a healthy environment are a great opportunity, it is only possible for States to make them a reality. Each of us can play our part in making that possible. We can make sure that governments take steps to protect the environment at all levels, from local forums to the highest global, including the UN General Assembly. And we can support climate and justice movements in their efforts for this right. We can encourage governments and other government officials to incorporate this right into their domestic laws and prioritize its implementation, including in terms budget allocations, training, resources, and budget allocations. We can ask academia and civil society to monitor and review the content of this right, paying particular attention to the effects of climate change on those most marginalized in all societies.

We can all work together to ensure that governments respect their human rights obligations and fulfill their commitments to the enjoyment and preservation of a healthy, safe, clean, and sustainable environment. This will require collaboration across countries as well as within countries. Importantly, governments will need to be bold and courageous in tackling climate injustice interests. Leaders need our collective support to do this.

Now is the time for people to be aware of and claim their right to a healthy ecosystem. This will allow humanity to restore its relationship with nature.


  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Peer review and Provenance: Not commissioned, but peer reviewed

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