OPINION: The official recognition last week by the United Nations Human Rights Council that the right to a healthy environment is an essential human right has been hailed as a historic victory for environmental protection and an important step forward for the world’s most vulnerable people.
It is also important to show up on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow next month, billed as the last best chance to promise emissions reductions large enough to ward off the worst consequences. global warming and associated ecological damage.
On the other hand, UN recognition does not make the right to a healthy environment legally binding. No New Zealander can now seek legal redress because our environment does not meet standards of cleanliness, health and sustainability.
So what does a human right to a healthy environment really mean? Is it largely rhetorical, or will its adoption have tangible consequences both internationally and in Aotearoa New Zealand?
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Better global standards
Despite its limitations, this new human right is certainly not useless. It is the first time that a right to a healthy environment has been explicitly recognized at the global level.
The law obliges states to protect against environmental damage, provide equal access to environmental benefits, and ensure a minimum standard of environmental quality that everyone can enjoy.
Arguably, this paves the way for better global standards, bolder climate litigation, and even a more equitable sharing of the burden and benefits of climate change.
It also creates a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change, focused on combating the effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights by people.
And it is likely that other global and regional bodies, including the United Nations General Assembly and the Council of Europe, will soon recognize the right to a healthy environment.
Developments like this would make the law more credible and visible, transforming it into an effective tool to encourage states and businesses to do more in environmental protection.
Enshrining the law in the law
Overall, the right to a healthy environment reflects a new urgency to put environmental issues back on the international agenda. For example, plans to adopt a “Global Pact for the Environment” next year are gaining momentum.
Supporters describe the pact as the most comprehensive international text of all time on environmental rights, essential to protect everyone and everything from the ‘triple planetary emergency’ of climate change, pollution and the loss of nature .
Already, in places where the right to a healthy environment is part of national law, court decisions translate into stronger climate action.
The Colombian Supreme Court, for example, recently ruled that deforestation in the Amazon violates the right to a healthy environment for present and future generations, and demanded that the government put protections in place.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese Supreme Court ruled that the government must take action against climate change within the framework of its citizens’ constitutional right to a healthy environment.
From these national examples and many others, we can be sure that the recognition of a right to a healthy environment will help improve the implementation of environmental laws, fill gaps in legislation and support compliance. human rights in general.
Implications for New Zealand
New Zealand courts and policymakers look to international human rights for guidance and standards. As recognition of the right to a healthy environment grows internationally, we can expect to see greater reliance on it here.
But there is one specific area where I foresee that this right may provide a new approach: climate change mitigation.
When it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and New Zealand, the elephant in the room – or the cow in the field – is the dairy industry. Between 1990 and 2018, New Zealand’s GHG emissions increased by 24%. The increase is largely due to methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilizers.
These two GHGs are several times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Continuing to operate with this level of GHG emissions will make it extremely difficult for New Zealand to do its fair share of climate change mitigation or meet its international climate change obligations.
Protect people and nature
The right to a healthy environment could then become a new lever for achieving major changes in a short period of time.
A rights-based approach to the environment will encourage a conversation about what a healthy environment means and who should benefit from it. It can even provide new vocabulary for discussing broader issues, such as land use, transportation, and electricity.
As we battle COVID-19 at home, it is tempting to look away from the serious environmental challenges that lie ahead. To do this would be a mistake.
The full potential of a human right to a healthy environment remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that a healthy environment is essential for human health and well-being – and that the protection of people and the protection of nature are always linked.
Nathan Cooper is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Waikato
This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished with permission. You can read the original story here.