HomePolitical leadershipWhy recognition of the human right to a healthy environment is essential

Why recognition of the human right to a healthy environment is essential

This post is by Susan Willman, assistant director and supervising solicitor of the Legal Clinic at King’s College, London. The Environmental Rights Recognition Project is an initiative based principally at the Legal Clinic.

This year has seen a wave of environmental crises around the world. From searing heatwaves to catastrophic flooding, the human impact of each disaster has made the link between human rights and the environment clearer than ever. This summer, the international community collectively acknowledged this when the UN General Assembly approved a historic resolution recognising a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. It received near universal support, with 161 states voting in favour, none against and eight abstaining.

Following this important declaration, it now falls to individual states to ensure the right becomes a reality for everyone, everywhere. This means enshrining it in national law (where it is not already a part of domestic legal systems), incorporating it into international human rights treaties and ensuring full implementation at the international, national and local levels.

The UK is an outlier in the world
While the UK has historically led the way on the development of international human rights and environmental law, it is behind when it comes to the right to a healthy environment. At least 156 of the 193 UN member states have incorporated it into their domestic legal systems, via national legislation or their constitutions. The UK is an outlier, with no legislative right to a healthy environment. This historic moment in the wake of the UN General Assembly’s resolution is a chance for the UK to change this.

Building on the UN’s momentum, a proposal is on the table at the Council of Europe to add the right to a healthy environment to the list of rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR protects the rights of everyone in the 46 member states of the Council of Europe (this is not an EU body, though they are sometimes confused).

Rights set out in the ECHR are incorporated into domestic law in the UK via the Human Rights Act 1998.

Progress at the European level will have major consequences internationally, so the proposal offers a chance for the UK and all Council of Europe member states not only to take action against environmental degradation in Europe, but also to help shape the right as an emerging international legal norm.

Pending formal recognition of a new ECHR right, there are steps the UK could be taking at the national level. Although recently proposed reforms to the UK’s domestic human rights regime have reportedly been shelved, the government could still modernise its approach to human rights by enshrining an enforceable right to a healthy environment in domestic legislation.

Environment should be at the heart of government
The benefits from recognising and implementing the right to a healthy environment in the UK would be substantial, whether it came through a new ECHR right or national legislation.

Experiences of states that have recognised this as a constitutional or national legislative right are illustrative. Surveys of those states reveal that the right serves to shape, strengthen and unify national environmental laws, as well as facilitating the implementation and enforcement of those laws. It ensures that environmental considerations are at the heart of government policy making, both nationally and locally. It leads to increased government and corporate accountability for environmental degradation. And it serves to promote environmental justice by setting a minimum standard of environmental quality for all.

A study conducted by David R Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, found that, compared with states that have no right to a healthy environment, those states that have it enshrined have smaller ecological footprints, rank higher on comprehensive indices of environmental performance indicators and have made faster progress in cutting sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

The government should respond to public concern
From Fridays for Future to Earth Strike, citizens worldwide, from all walks of life, are coming together to express their frustration at government failures to address environmental crises. A recent YouGov poll shows that the overwhelming majority of the British public support new laws to achieve increased environmental accountability. The UK government should respond.

The environmental catastrophes of 2022 are only the beginning. All signs indicate that, without drastic action, we are on course for total collapse of our natural support systems. The UN General Assembly’s resolution should serve as a rallying call, urging lawmakers, in the UK and around the world, to recognise that enshrining this right in national and international law is an essential step in making a healthy environment a reality for us all.

Read more about the proposal: Environmental Rights Recognition Project – The right to a healthy environment in the United Kingdom.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.