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The United Nations have declared that having a clean and healthy environment is a human right.
Gavin Hellier/Stocksy
  • Air pollution, chemical exposure, and other environmental risks lead to 13.7 million deaths — 24% of mortalities worldwide — each year.
  • The United Nations Human Rights Council declared that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on member states to act aggressively and promptly toward implementing this decision.

In a landmark move, the UN Human Rights Council formally recognized that access to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right.

Ambassadors from Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland drafted Resolution 48/13, which passed with 43 votes in favor. China, India, Japan, and Russia abstained.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, insisted:

“Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social, and environmental policies that will protect people and nature.”

Medical News Today spoke about this resolution with Dr. Anita Chandra, Dr.P.H., vice president and director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

During the interview, Dr. Chandra stated that the content of the resolution “was pretty consistent with where the world has been going, including the United States, on the [U.N.’s] Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

MNT asked Dr. Chandra how the corporate sector is working towards a healthier environment. She commented:

“I think there have been some helpful attempts at private sector engagement and public-private partnerships on it […] Many companies are finding that they need to determine sustainable solutions, and that’s what governs a lot of companies through the ESG goals […] These are environmental, social and governance goals, and ESG goals tend to elevate environmental protections and sustainability. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but there is at least a move towards that.”

Profitable sustainability

Dr. Chandra pointed out that RAND worked with Costa Rica on their National Decarbonization Plan. She stated that RAND’s methods “were not only good for the environment but had a net positive outcome in terms of profits.”

She believed that the challenge for industries is how to align their ESG goals with the UN’s SDGs and Resolution 48/13. Fortunately, the senior researcher sees that frameworks are starting to connect these ideals.

Holding businesses accountable

MNT also discussed this UN resolution with Mustafa Ali, Ph.D., J.D., former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official and founder of the environmental consultancy Revitalization Strategies.

When asked how businesses will implement more equitable and sustainable processes, Dr. Ali answered:

“I think […] it starts with governments making a decision that this is a valuable set of actions and creating incentives for those who want to move in a positive direction and supporting that behavior.”

Dr. Ali also argued that shareholders and individuals could and should use their dollars to hold corporations accountable.

He called for governments to take “a stronger stance on those [companies] who refuse to evolve.”

This new resolution suggests that the most vulnerable populations worldwide are more severely affected by the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution, and nature loss.

Dr. Ali suggested:

“It’s because of policies in the back from history and up to this moment. We know [about] racism, discrimination, bias — these have been built into policy, housing policy, transportation policy, environmental policy, public health or medical policy, financial policy. So, that is just the history, at least of the United States, of creating disproportionate impacts, disinvestments in communities that make them more vulnerable.”

Dr. Ali spoke of the 48217 zip code in Detroit, MI, where residents reportedly deal with disproportionately high occurrences of asthma, cognitive impairments, and cancer due to air pollution.

He also mentioned Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and West Virginia’s Canaan Valley among minoritized and low income locations bearing the brunt of inequitable environmental threats.

Ms. Bachelet also reported that an excessive number of environmental human rights defenders were killed in 2020. She pleaded with UN member states to employ firm measures to protect and empower these advocates.

Dr. Ali noted that “Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks have been the ones protecting our forests, jungles, and wetlands and often stand in the way of big corporations who want that land.”

Dr. Chandra has observed that individuals and communities often face conflict while navigating competing interests. She explained: “As people advocate for changes, that can come with stress and tension.”

Dr. Ali appreciates the resolution for calling out this behavior, adding: “If you say you care about climate change, then you have to care about these folks who are standing on the front lines […] in the United States against environmental racism, environmental injustice, or they’re standing on the front lines in jungles and in forests across our planet.”

The UN High Commissioner hailed the resolution for acknowledging “environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises.”

Ms. Bachelet also praised the earth-saving efforts of youth groups, organizations of Indigenous people, human rights institutions, and other establishments.

Dr. Ali stressed that the UN’s resolution makes its member states responsible for pushing and holding governments and industries accountable.

According to Dr. Chandra, “so much of our health is driven by where we live and what we’re exposed to, where we can play, where we can work, how we can convene, and climate is a piece of that.”

She sees “a lot of potential progress” as many local and regional governments are applying SDG concepts that meet the challenge of UN Resolution 48/13.