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The UN has finally recognised the right to a healthy environment as a universal human right. In a year that has seen people’s basic needs threatened and violated by climate disasters across the globe, the EEB urges the EU to guarantee this right for all, write Ruby Silk and Margarida Martins.

From heatwaves in Europe leading to droughts and wild fires, to the flooding of Pakistan which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, the lives of people across the world are being battered by the impacts of climate breakdown. What’s more, vulnerable people with limited resources are being hit the hardest; left without access to water, food, clean air or a safe place to live, in sum, without a healthy environment.

On 8 October 2021, after decades in the making, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) formally recognised “access to a healthy and sustainable environment” as a human right. Less than a year later, the UN General Assembly took up the baton from the UNHRC and adopted a resolution – a formal opinion – declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a universal human right.

The resolution contains strong political commitments and calls upon states, international organisations and businesses to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. To date, 126 countries have enshrined this right in their constitutions and national laws, including 19 out of 27 EU countries. Those EU member states which have not yet done so are nevertheless parties to the Aarhus Convention, which explicitly includes the right to a healthy environment in its text, and so have already legally recognised the right.

Although the UN resolutions have little legal power (they are non-binding) they do carry significant political weight. The recognition of the new right obliges states to adopt policies to enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.

It is the first time the right to a healthy environment has been explicitly recognised at the global level and it is arguably overdue; this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, identified the triple planetary crisis of nature loss, pollution and climate change as the primary threat to human rights of this era.

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