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A clean and healthy environment is a human right, U.N. resolution declares

Image by Drift Shutterbug via Pexels.

  • On July 28, member states of the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt a historic resolution that recognizes that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.
  • While the resolution is not legally binding, experts say it can give rise to constitutional and legal changes that will positively impact the environment and human well-being.
  • The resolution comes at a critical moment in human history as we face an accelerating climate crisis, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the ongoing threat of pollution.

This week, member states of the U.N. General Assembly — the highest UN body that wields considerable influence over its member states — adopted a historic resolution: the recognition that it’s a universal human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The resolution received overwhelming support when it was put to a vote before the UNGA, the highest UN body that wields considerable influence over its member states, on July 28: 161 nations voted in favor, while only eight nations abstained from voting.

“In a world that too often emphasizes the differences between people, the right to a healthy environment reflects a fundamental truth that should unite us all,” David Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “Everyone’s health and quality of life depends on clean air, safe water, sustainably produced food, a stable climate, and healthy ecosystems.”

Boyd said that while U.N. resolutions are not legally binding on member states, they can be “catalysts for change.”

For instance, Boyd said a resolution on the human right to water and sanitation that was adopted by the UNGA in 2010 led to constitutional and legal changes in countries like Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, Slovenia, Colombia and France.

Pollution by plastics, many thousands of human-made chemicals, radioacive materials and other types of improperly disposed of waste has become a serious environmental and human rights issue. Image by Hermes Rivera via Unsplash.

“The progress in striking,” he said. “In Mexico, more than 1,000 rural communities gained access to clean water. In Canada, more than 130 Indigenous communities now enjoy safe drinking water. In Slovenia, vulnerable and marginalized Roma populations have benefitted. In Colombia and other nations, the right to water saved lives by preventing companies from cutting off people’s water supply for nonpayment during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This resolution has “similar life-changing potential,” Boyd said.

“It will spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws, with positive implications for air quality, safe and sufficient water, healthy soil, sustainably produced food, green energy, climate change, biodiversity and the regulation of toxic substances,” he said.

The resolution has been five decades in the making, with its origins dating back to the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

“[It] has been a long time coming,” Boyd said, adding that powerful states previously opposed the resolution because they understood it could give rise to “major changes.”

The resolution was prepared by five member states: Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland.

The U.N Secretary-General António Guterres, who previously warned that humanity faces “collective suicide” if immediate action isn’t taken on the climate crisis, said he welcomed the resolution.

“[It’s] an important tool for accountability and climate justice,” he said in a statement. “The well-being of people around the world and the survival of future generations depends on the health of our planet.”

The resolution comes at a time when the current and future impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly clear. Wildfires are growing in size and ferocity, destroying ecosystems, homes and livelihoods. In Europe alone, more than 515,000 hectares (1.27 million acres) of land have burned since January across several nations, including France, Spain and Greece, and more than 2,000 people have died from heat waves during this period. Ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa has left an estimated 13 million people facing hunger. Rising sea temperatures are leading to a steady increase in coral bleaching events across the world’s oceans, impacting marine biodiversity that supports life both in and out of the water.

According to an assessment released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have a rapidly narrowing window to lower global emissions and limit warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. If we fail to take swift and meaningful action, the planet will continue to warm with disastrous consequences.

Coal-fired power plants add significantly to global climate change while also contributing to local health problems. Power plants, cement manufacturing, refineries, chemical factories and other polluting heavy industries are typically sited in economically disadvantaged communities. Image by stanzebla on VisualHunt

Another key issue is pollution. A recent study in Lancet Planetary Health found that pollution is responsible for 9 million premature deaths a year. Scientists have also warned that we have crossed a planetary boundary in terms of chemical pollution, which threatens to destabilize our life-supporting planet.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, called the U.N. resolution a “historic moment,” but also said that “simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough.”

“The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it,” she said. “We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now.”

She added: “To survive and thrive, we must invest in environmental and social protection centred in human rights; hold governments and businesses duly to account for environmental harms; empower all people to act as agents of change for a healthy environment; and recognize and uphold the rights of those most affected by environmental degradation.”


Fuller, R., Landrigan, P. J., Balakrishnan, K., Bathan, G., Bose-O’Reilly, S., Brauer, M., … Yam, C. (2022). Pollution and health: A progress update. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(6), e535-e547doi:10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00090-0

Banner image caption: Image by Drift Shutterbug via Pexels.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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