David R. Boyd is the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and author of 10 books including The Environmental Rights Revolution and The Optimistic Environmentalist.
"The right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment could prove to be the most important human right of the 21st century."
This beautiful blue-green Earth is the only planet in the universe known to support life, in all its mind-boggling beauty and abundance. From elephants and blue whales to phytoplankton and termites; biodiversity is truly miraculous.
Yet, Earth’s essential life-support systems are under assault from unsustainable human activities, causing a planetary health emergency that includes climate disruption, biodiversity loss, toxic pollution, and the increasing incidence of emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19. These global problems are symptoms of our dysfunctional relationship with nature, which we treat as a commodity for us to exploit rather than a community to which we belong. Today’s population, closing in on 8 billion people, is taking too much and generating more waste than nature can handle.
To address these interconnected crises the world’s leading scientists have called for rapid and systemic change. Humankind must transform how we produce and use energy, how we grow food and what we eat, even how we measure progress, in our quest for a just and sustainable future.
This is where human rights enter the picture. The abolitionists harnessed freedom and equality to topple slavery while human rights also empowered suffragettes, anti-apartheid activists, the civil rights movement, Indigenous peoples and LGBTQ+ campaigners across the world. While rights are not a magic wand that will easily, instantly or completely solve global problems, their transformative potential cannot be denied.
In the darkness of the planetary environmental emergency, there is an exciting beacon of hope. Around the world, the human right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now recognised in law by more than 80% of UN member states (156 out of 193), through constitutions, legislation, court decisions and regional treaties. These legal frameworks also provide tools for ensuring accountability, including rights related to information, participation and access to justice.
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 ecosystems, from sea turtles to mangroves.
Efforts are under way to secure UN resolutions, within the next year, that enshrine the right to a healthy environment from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. This echoes the successful effort a decade ago to gain global recognition for the rights to water and sanitation. Although not legally binding, these resolutions spark action at the national level and, in the longer term, the right to a healthy environment could be included in a new Global Pact for the Environment, as France is proposing, or added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as civil society is suggesting.
To breathe life into this right, we all have a responsibility to take care of this one-of-a-kind living planet, the only home humanity will ever know. When we respect and protect the wonders of nature, we effectively protect ourselves as well.