By Melanie Montalban (Managing Lawyer – ACT) and Frances Bradshaw (Senior Solicitor), Healthy Environment and Justice Program, Canberra
The UN General Assembly is meeting in New York this week starting 25 July 2022 to consider a resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (the ‘right to a healthy environment’). An earlier decision of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in October 2021 recognised the right to a healthy environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights.1 During the meeting in New York, the General Assembly will consider the HRC’s resolution and decide whether to adopt a resolution reaffirming recognition of the human right.
The triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution pose the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.
The 2021 Australia State of the Environment Report identifies that, in a rapidly changing climate, with unsustainable development and use of resources and declining biodiversity, the general outlook of Australia’s environment is poor and deteriorating.2 As stated in the report, ‘[e]nvironmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, that could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences’.3 The report demonstrates that Australia is not immune to the impacts of environmental degradation on our health and wellbeing:
- the competition for land area in Australia caused by urban sprawl, combined with the impacts of climate change, are putting increasing pressure on fresh food provision and security;
- water quality is declining in many areas due to increased salinity, algal blooms, bushfire ash run-off and pollutants;
- although Australia’s air quality generally meets global standards, recent research indicates that there is no ‘safe’ level of air pollution, particularly for sensitive populations exposed to ozone or particulate matter, and studies have reported that in Australia in 2015, 2,566 deaths were caused by air pollution (1.6% of all deaths in Australia);
- climate change impacts – including from heatwaves, dust levels, and extreme weather events like cyclones, bushfires and floods – are increasingly affecting human wellbeing, particularly for overburdened people and communities who are at greater risk of harm from such impacts; and
- degradation to Country and destruction of First Nations heritage – including cultural landscapes and other intangible heritage – is detrimental to First Nations Peoples’ physical and mental health and wellbeing.4
A General Assembly resolution reaffirming recognition of the right to a healthy environment is critical to ensuring universal protection of human life, wellbeing, and dignity in the face of the triple planetary crisis.
Australia is one of the 193 Member States of the UN and will be participating in the General Assembly meeting this week.
We call on the Australian Government to support and vote in favour of a General Assembly resolution reaffirming recognition of the right to a healthy environment.
Why is reaffirming recognition of the right important? What will be the implications of a UN General Assembly resolution reaffirming recognition of the right to a healthy environment?
It is critical for Australia to support and vote in favour of a General Assembly resolution reaffirming the recognition of the right to a healthy environment, for a range of reasons including:
- A General Assembly resolution would clarify that the right to a healthy environment should be universally recognised, protected, respected and fulfilled. This would be an important first step towards ensuring that UN human rights institutions can better address the most pressing threats to the enjoyment of human rights.
- In countries that already recognise the right to a healthy environment, a General Assembly will be a catalyst for additional legislative and policy changes that ensure that these countries fulfil their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right.
- In countries that do not yet recognise the right to a healthy environment, a General Assembly resolution will be a catalyst for new environmental and human rights legislation, and policies that recognise and implement the right.
- A General Assembly resolution would spur all countries to prioritise and accelerate actions to implement the right to a healthy environment and lead to improved health and environmental outcomes.
What can Australia do?
After a decade of inaction on the environment, the newly elected Australian Government now has an opportunity to restore Australia’s reputation on the international stage by supporting and voting in favour of a General Assembly resolution reaffirming recognition of the right to a healthy environment.
For more information on the right to a healthy environment, including what the right is, its legal status, and why it is important, see the following articles on our website:
- Revel Pointon and Dr Justine Bell-James, ‘Legal Analysis: The right to a healthy environment in Australia’ (9 January 2020); and
- Melanie Montalban and Claudia Hodge, ‘“Bold action” required following recognition of the human right to a healthy environment’ (19 October 2021).
1 UN Human Rights Council, Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 8 October 2021: 48/13 The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/48/13 (18 October 2021) at 3.
2 Australia State of the Environment Report 2021, ‘Outlook – Outlook and impacts’, https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/overview/outlook-and-impacts
3 Australia State of the Environment Report 2021, ‘Impacts – Outlook and impacts’, https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/overview/outlook-and-impacts
4 2021 Australia State of the Environment Report, ‘Human society and wellbeing’ https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/overview/environment/human-society-and-wellbeing