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The right to a healthy environment


On 8 October, at its 48th session, the United Nations Human Rights Council formally adopted a resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Through this resolution, the Human Rights Council acknowledges that damage to the environment negatively affects all human rights, that the consequences of this damage ‘are felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations’, and that procedural justice (such as community participation in environmental decision-making and access to government information) is fundamental to the realisation of this right. Finally, it also emphasises that ‘environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy human rights, including the right to life’.

This formal recognition of the right to a healthy environment has been a long time coming. The global community first recognised this right in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, with a declaration that the environment is essential to human ‘well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights — even the right to life itself’.  Since then, over 150 States have recognized the right through their domestic law or regional agreements.

As the former Special Rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment, John Knox, argued in 2019: ‘The right could thus be said to have achieved near­global support even in the absence of a global instrument explicitly recognizing it, although the remaining hold­outs include some powerful, populous countries, notably China, Japan and the United States, as well as Australia and Canada.’ (More on that in a moment.)

Now that it has been formally recognised by the Human Rights Council, the next step for the international community, as recommended by the Special Rapporteur, is to adopt a new international treaty, a new optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and/or a General Assembly resolution on the right to a healthy environment (as occurred in relation to the human right to water in 2010). For now, the Human Rights Council has called for the United Nations General Assembly to consider the matter.

At the same 48th session, the Human Rights Council also adopted a separate resolution to appoint a new Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. As the world looks towards the United Nations COP26 international climate conference, which will be held in Glasgow this November, and digests the contents of the first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report, there is near-global recognition of the urgency of climate action and of the serious human rights implications of environmental harms, including those exacerbated by climate change.

UN Secretary General António Guterres recently commented, ‘The climate alarm bells are … ringing at fever pitch. The recent report of the [IPCC] was a code red for humanity. We see the warning signs in every continent and region -- scorching temperatures, shocking biodiversity loss, polluted air, water and natural spaces.’ In reference to COP26, he argued, ‘We must get serious and we must act fast’. Unfortunately, here at the bottom of the world, it is apparent that our leaders are not listening.


'The global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is yet another reminder of the human rights implications of the climate crisis — particularly for the most vulnerable — and of the moral and legal obligations that our government is currently ignoring through its refusal to take decisive action.'


Seven days after the Human Rights Council resolution, on 15 October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that he would be attending COP26, after weeks of indecision on the subject. He also indicated that he wanted to take with him a position on net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but needed to work with his coalition colleagues in the National Party to reach an agreement on this commitment. The Prime Minister’s announcement was followed, two days later, by a Nationals party room meeting to consider the government's proposed pathway to net zero. They emerged from the meeting without a decision, with Leader (and Deputy Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce arguing that the party room were still considering the implications for regional communities and the export-dependent Australian economy, and ‘to be quite frank, you’re not going to do that on [sic] four hours on Sunday night.’

At first glance, Mr Joyce’s argument appears fairly reasonable. A significant new policy with potentially complex economic impacts should not be adopted after just four hours of consideration and debate. However, as Shadow Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen has commented, the Nationals have had years to develop a reasonable climate policy and it is cynical in the extreme to pretend that this is somehow a new issue.

To make matters worse, a commitment to net zero by 2050 isn’t even close to the base level of action that is needed to address the reality of the threat we face from climate change. As Greg Jericho recently articulated, ‘Carbon emissions don’t disappear once the year passes, they keep adding up. So, the issue is not really net zero but how much in total we can emit to limit temperatures rising.’ Essentially, there is a seriously limited amount of carbon we can emit if we are going to ensure a ‘healthy, clean and sustainable environment;’ and we need clear, actionable and legislated targets to reduce our emissions in the immediate future, rather than putting off action until well after we have already blown our carbon ‘budget.’

To fail to do so is to wilfully inflict serious damage to the environment and all its occupants. The global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is yet another reminder of the human rights implications of the climate crisis — particularly for the most vulnerable — and of the moral and legal obligations that our government is currently ignoring through its refusal to take decisive action. It is also another reminder of just how out of step the Australian government now is with the global consensus on this issue.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: An aerial view of Cape Tribulation in North Queensland. (Darren Tierney/Getty Images)

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this may add more credence to what has been said by Pope Francis Sir David Attenborough Prince William and Prince Charles and lets hope that many great things come from COP26 in Glasgow at the end of the month

Maryellen Flynn | 21 October 2021  

Thank you Cristy for a very important and appropriate topic as we face enormous problems with the world's environment. It is good that the UN is considering the access to a clean , healthy and sustainable environment being considered as a basic human right. It has to be said that this is long overdue however. It has to be said that already too many people have died because of industrial emissions and chemical and biological war agents up until this time in history.

What has made it difficult to achieve introducing such a concept is that since the start of the Industrial Revolution, political leaders have largely done the bidding of the leaders of commerce and industry. For too long, industries have been allowed to operate with limited safeguards for workers and for maintaining environmental health.

Even if such a concept had been internationally agreed to from the beginning of the 20th century, would some of the major players in corporations, military forces and politics have respected the principle to prevent such inhumanity as nerve gases used in WW1, two atomic bombs being dropped on 2 civilian populations in Japan at the end of WW2, saturation bombing, napalm and antipersonnel devices used against the peoples of Indochina, various disasters - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Seveso, Bhopal, Fukushima, the huge death toll from exposure to toxic emissions, asbestos, carcinogens and other dangerous substances.

I think the concept is a good one, but to make it effectively protect people, there will have to be far stronger OH&S and environmental laws and more will have to be done to provide effective enforcement. In addition more will have to be done to prevent wars which do enormous damage to the environment.

For some time, many progressive Australians have been calling for our own charter of human rights. I think it would be appropriate for the UN statement about the human right to a healthy environment to be included in such a charter.

Sadly, though, we know that many conservative politicians have been vehemently opposed to such a charter along with effective laws to protect OH&S and environmental health.

Much needs to be done.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 October 2021  

Hi Dr Clark, you are absoulutely correct people need healthy environments, not just clean air and clean water but access to good health systems. Sovereign rights.
But when they, the poor and unrepresented encounter forced sterilisation, where are the virtuos flying the flag of civil liberties. Where is their right to have fruits that bring goodness to the world.
These people need to have children to support themselves and their communities, but this is being taken from them. Do you really believe they care about Carbon Emissions and the scare mongering delivered by agenda driven politcal idealists. Could it be they see a Carbon Cargo Cult opportunity.
Judge by the fruits they deliver. All life is sacred. If I remember correctly the Birth Pangs of the Lord are represented in the activity of the planet, expect things to get active. God Bless

Peter Sumner | 22 October 2021  

Thank you Cristy. As you rightly say, this has been an issue for the best part of a hundred years. When economics drive the society instead of the other way round, decisions are made which are not in the best interests of the society. We need balance. A personal issue for me is the despair, anger and distress I feel at the inaction and the need to keep hopeful for grandchildren and others not born. Jorie

Jorie Ryan | 22 October 2021  

You are pretty much on target with this one, Cristy. Our national attempt to sensibly address climate change seems pretty woeful. I watched Q & A on the subject last night and the two politicians, Tim Wilson of the Coalition and Chris Bowen of Labor, appeared like Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. In the face of some very intelligent questioning from the Mayor of Mt Isa, who is naturally very concerned about what will happen to her community with the switchover to renewables, they were both unable to give a non-platitudinous answer. This lady was not a 'mad coalie' by any stretch of the imagination. Like many voters in mining areas, she is concerned for the future. The questioners, many from mining backgrounds, saw the inevitable but wanted some real answers. They got none. Simon Holmes a Court, the wealthy investor, had some clues, as did Amelia Telford, the bright, vital young Indigenous lady but no one, to my recall, mentioned the possibility of the new, safer, smaller nuclear power generators, which could use Australian uranium; provide safe, cheap, reliable electricity; help revitalise manufacturing, which provides employment and put us ahead in a booming new industry. This was a mistake. We need to discuss this nationally.

Edward Fido | 22 October 2021  

So given all the rhetoric about climate/environment, I would like to know when will we address the issue of all durable goods manufactured with deliberately shortened redundancies.

As an example, I am old enough to remember white goods were manufactured to last 20 to 30 years as opposed to recent times where they last to their warranty date then mysteriously fail.

Just think of the benefits to the environment where corporations were forced to manufacture goods to s standard we were able to achieve forty to sixty years ago.

I find it astonishing there is no discussion regarding this but certainly understand the rationale of the corporates wish to enhance profits at the expense of the the much too tolerant consumer and importantly the environment.

The use of Government incentives to encourage the corporates and consumers to reduce landfill waste and our carbon footprint would go a very long way towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

For the record our family practice what we preach.

I won't hold my breath waiting for any action given lower corporate profits mean reduced taxes for Government. I wonder what my local MP has to say on the matter!

Garry Ridge | 08 November 2021  

Cristy we have to stop selling land, power companies, ports, mines and water to the Chinese. In 2017 the Chinese owned 14.2 million hectares here. Four years later they own 52 million hectares- mostly prime agricultural land around rivers. They also own 700 gigalitres of our fresh water (one and a half times the volume of Sydney Harbour).
To put their land ownership in perspective, (Australians are not allowed to own land in China) Tasmania is 68,401 sq km. They own 35 Dairy Farms there. Their current land ownership is 7.6 times the size of Tasmania and this from a country that is attempting to drive Australia into bankruptcy with their 20 bn beef and barley, wine, crayfish betrayal tariffs.
This from a country that has the worst pollution record on the environment on earth. The most endangered animals and birds. I cannot believe our politicians can be so stupid.

Francis Armstrong | 02 December 2021  

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