It’s been 50 years since the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (the right to a healthy environment) was recognised in the Stockholm Declaration. In July 2022, the right to a healthy environment became universally recognised as a human right. Yet Australia remains one of only 37 of 193 UN Member States which does not recognise the right to a healthy environment in our own laws.

Now is the time for all levels of Australian government to enshrine the right of Australians to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in law. 

For 20 years, EDO has advocated for the recognition of the human right to a healthy environment in Australia. Our work, from Youth Verdict and The Bimblebox Alliance’s human rights challenge to Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal mine, to our submissions following the destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto, to our advocacy protecting endangered Spectacled Flying-Foxes, all demonstrate the current inefficiencies of our laws to protect our communities, environment and climate. 

This week, we released our landmark national report, A Healthy Environment is a Human Right

The report addresses what the right to a healthy environment is and its legal status in Australia, why Australian governments should recognise the right to a healthy environment in our laws, and different options for the right to be recognised in Australian law. 

It is important to acknowledge that the foundations of the right to a healthy environment come from cultural knowledges and traditions of Indigenous people around the world, including First Nations People, who have lived in Australia for over 60,000 years. 

All human rights ultimately depend on a healthy environment.  

The 2021 Australia State of the Environment Report demonstrates that our laws do not offer comprehensive protection of our environment, finding that “[o]verall, the state and trend of the environment Australia is poor and deteriorating”. 

While our current environmental laws focus on controlling individual developments and managing our use of natural resources, as a human right, the right to a healthy environment places individuals and communities at the heart of environmental protection and considers cumulative impacts, restoration, and increasing health and wellbeing. 

“Fundamentally, the human right to a healthy environment only recognises in law something that every person intrinsically knows to be true – we as humans rely on the environment for our health, wellbeing and security,” Nicole Sommer, EDO’s Director of Healthy Environment and Justice said. 

“The decisions that Australia makes now will determine what the next 50 years will look like.” 

Evidence from decades of experience in other countries that already recognise the right to a healthy environment shows that express recognition of the right will likely be a catalyst for achieving better outcomes for our environment and our health in Australia.

Nations with the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions have smaller ecological footprints, rank higher on comprehensive indices of environmental indicators, are more likely to ratify international environmental agreements and have made faster progress in reducing emissions.

The result is that many millions of people, particularly those most at risk of environmental harm, are breathing cleaner air, have gained access to safe drinking water, have reduced their exposure to toxic substances, and are living in healthier ecosystems. 

As Dr David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment states in his foreword to our report, “History proves that human rights can be a powerful catalyst for transformative change… In the face of today’s unprecedented global environmental crisis, which has wrought devastation upon people and ecosystems in Australia, it is exciting to contemplate the potentially transformative impact of recognising and implementing the right to a healthy environment.”

Following the launch of our landmark report, A Healthy Environment is a Human Right, we are delighted to announce our partnership with the Global Pact Coalition! 

The Coalition is working towards the recognition of the human right to a healthy environment in treaty. A Global Pact for the Environment would recognize the rights and duties of citizens and governments to better protect our planet and contribute to the emergence of a global legal framework that can protect our natural resources.  

We are proud to join nearly 1,000 jurists, scientists, academics, celebrities, artists and climate advocates from over 70 countries who all believe that the time to act for our planet has come, and support the Global Pact for the Environment. 

Read our joint statement here.