People's Stories Environment

UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right
by UN News, agencies
28 July 2022
"We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now" - UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
With 161 votes in favour, and eight abstentions*, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution on Thursday, declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right.
The resolution, based on a similar text adopted last year by the Human Rights Council, calls upon States, international organisations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the 'historic' decision and said the landmark development demonstrates that Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples”, he said.
He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.
“The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all”, he said.
Guterres underscored that however, the adoption of the resolution 'is only the beginning' and urged nations to make this newly recognised right ‘a reality for everyone, everywhere’.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also hailed the Assembly’s decision and echoed the Secretary-General's call for urgent action to implement it.
“Today is a historic moment, but 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. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now,” she said.
Ms. Bachelet explained that environmental action based on human rights obligations provides vital guardrails for economic policies and business models.
“It emphasizes the underpinning of legal obligations to act, rather than simply of discretionary policy. It is also more effective, legitimate and sustainable,” she added.
The text, originally presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland last June, and now co-sponsored by over 100 countries, notes that the right to a healthy environment is related to existing international law and affirms that its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.
It also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right - and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Mr. David Boyd, the Assembly’s decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.
“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act”, he recently told UN News.
In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with its own historic declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.
UN Member States back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to "an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being," calling for concrete action and the recognition of this right.
Last October, after decades of work by nations at the front lines of climate change, such as the Maldives archipelago, as well as more than 1,000 civil society organisations, the Human Rights Council finally recognised this right and called for the UN General Assembly to do the same.
“From a foothold in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, the right has been integrated into constitutions, national laws and regional agreements. Today’s decision elevates the right to where it belongs: universal recognition”, said UN Environment chief, Inger Andersen.
The recognition of the right to a healthy environment by these UN bodies, although not legally binding— meaning countries don’t have a legal obligation to comply— is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable.
“So, the recognition of this right is a victory we should celebrate. My thanks to Member States and to the thousands of civil society organizations and indigenous peoples’ groups, and tens of thousands of young people who advocated relentlessly for this right. But now we must build on this victory and implement the right”, Ms. Andersen added.
The newly recognised right will be crucial to tackling the triple planetary crisis. This refers to the three main interlinked environmental threats that humanity currently faces: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss - all mentioned in the text of the resolution.
Each of these issues has its own causes and effects and they need to be resolved if we are to have a viable future on Earth.
The consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, through increased intensity and severity of droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has underlined that air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, with more than seven million people dying prematurely each year due to pollution.
Furthermore, the decline or disappearance of biological diversity - which includes animals, plants and ecosystems - impacts food supplies, access to clean water and life as we know it.
* States who abstained: China, Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia.

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WMO warns of frequent heatwaves in decades ahead
by United Nations, agencies
19 July 2022
Extreme heat in western Europe is causing devastating wildfires in France and Spain, unprecedented drought in Italy and Portugal, and the United Kingdom recorded its highest-ever temperature of just over 40 degrees Celsius during Tuesday, at London’s Heathrow airport.
With temperatures expected to remain above normal until the middle of next week, the World Metrological Organization (WMO) warned that heatwaves will occur more and more frequently, into the 2060s.
The pattern is linked to the observed warming of the planet that can be attributed to human activity, raising serious concerns for the planet’s future, the UN weather agency said.
Harvests at risk
“We are expecting to see major impacts on agriculture. During the previous heatwaves in Europe, we lost big parts of harvest. And under the current situation - we are already having the global food crisis because of the war in Ukraine - this heatwave is going to have a further negative impact on agricultural activities”, warned Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO at a press conference to launch the latest extreme weather findings, in Geneva.
In several countries, some economic sectors - including tourism that has only begun to fully recover in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic - are suffering as a result.
Further warming inevitable
“The negative trend in climate will continue at least until the 2060s, independent of our success in climate mitigation”, Mr. Taalas added. “We have already lost the game concerning the melting of glaciers. We expect that the melting of glaciers will continue for the coming hundreds of years or even coming thousands of years…Sea level rise will continue for the same period”.
Mr. Taalas reflected growing concerns over extreme weather patterns, in his sartorial selection on Tuesday, he told journalists, choosing to wear short sleeves and a red and blue tie, in recognition of the increasing number of red alerts flashing up across Europe.
The heatwave also acts as a kind of atmospheric lid, WHO explained, trapping pollutants, and degrading air quality, with adverse health consequences, particularly for vulnerable people such as the elderly. In the major 2003 heatwave in Europe, some 70,000 people died.
“Climate change is affecting our health in many ways, not only by heatwaves which are having direct consequences” but also other areas of essential healthcare, such as rising levels of disease, alerted Maria Neira, Director for public and environmental health at WHO.
She explained that reliable access to food and water is at stake, as with agricultural production levels at risk, “and there will be water scarcity for sure”.
She said that 99% of the global population is breathing air that does not meet the health standards set by WHO, hugely impacting chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.
Ambition is key
“The best solution to this will be, again, being very ambitious on tackling the causes of this global warming. “We have been alerting for a long time that climate change is affecting very much human health”, she emphasized, which will also impact the struggle to reach net zero carbon emissions, and the crucial transition to clean, renewable sources of energy.
More deaths among the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are feared due to the ongoing heatwave in the weeks ahead, and subsequent challenges to health systems, to keep up with rising demand.
July 2022
Heat-related deaths on the rise worldwide. (Human Rights Watch)
As extreme heat warnings are being issued across Europe, over 1,100 people are thought to have died due to the ongoing heatwave in southern Europe. People with disabilities and older people are among those at particular risk of heat-related illness and death, a Human Rights Watch report about the impact of a heatwave in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) between June 25 and July 1 last year found. This heatwave killed hundreds of people. Many of the deaths would have been preventable.
In Australia, heatwaves have caused more deaths in the past 200 years than any other natural hazard. And as April temperatures hit nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of northern India and Pakistan, at least 90 people died from heat-related causes. There is little doubt that climate change means heatwaves will increase in intensity and frequency.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published last April shows it is still possible to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as needed to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. However, it will require “rapid and deep” emissions cuts across all sectors, and government’s current track record is not promising.
Average annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2010-2019 were higher than in any previous decade, with fossil fuels and industry responsible for the largest growth in emissions. Meanwhile, government commitments to reduce emissions are not ambitious enough, implementation efforts are falling even further behind what is needed, and financing for fossil fuels is still greater than for climate adaptation and mitigation.
Given the foreseeable rise of extreme heatwaves, and the impact on at risk populations including older people, people with disabilities, pregnant people and people living in poverty, governments should have a clear plan to prevent future heat-related deaths and manage other severe health risks associated with heatwaves. Failing to take more ambitious climate action and a strengthening of rights-respecting climate policies will mean young people alive today are going to experience catastrophic warming this century and many more lives will be at risk.

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