top of page
La nature sauvage

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

This page aims to explore the key aspects of the right to a healthy environment. We will explore its components and its recognition at different levels.

Components of the Right to a Healthy Environment

 

Exploration of the content of the Right to a Healthy Environment

 

The key components of this right are reflected in various international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as in resolutions of the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly, and thematic reports of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. Each element is interconnected and relies on the implementation of the others to enable the full enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment. These elements are divided into two main categories: substantive rights and procedural rights.

Substantive rights

 

Right to clean air

 

The right to clean air means that all individuals have the right to breathe air free of pollutants harmful to human health. Although this right is not explicitly recognized as an autonomous right in a single legal text, it can be derived from several international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO). Clean air is defined by levels of atmospheric pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), tropospheric ozone (O3), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that do not exceed the limits recommended by WHO.

 

Current Issues

Air pollution is responsible for the deaths of nearly 7 million people each year worldwide. It contributes to major health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and particularly affects vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses. Environmental impacts also include ecosystem degradation, reduced agricultural yields, and biodiversity loss. The sources of air pollution are diverse, including vehicle emissions, industrial activities, biomass burning, and agricultural practices. Low and middle-income countries are particularly affected, with pollution levels often well above international standards.

Right to a safe climate

The right to a safe climate means that all individuals have the right to live in a stable and safe climate, essential for life and human well-being. This right is crucial for the enjoyment of many other human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, development, health, food, water and sanitation, adequate housing, and culture. It is supported by several international human rights and environmental instruments, such as the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as various United Nations resolutions. A safe climate is defined by stable climatic conditions that do not endanger human health or the environment and by the ability of societies to adapt to climate changes while mitigating their effects.

Current Issues

Climate change directly threatens the enjoyment of many human rights. It contributes to extreme weather events and gradual changes such as sea-level rise and desertification. These phenomena expose millions of people to food and water insecurity, cause irreversible losses in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and increase mortality, morbidity, and population displacement. At least 3.3 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The sources of climate change include greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion, industry, agriculture, and deforestation. Developing countries and vulnerable communities are particularly affected, suffering disproportionately from the impacts of climate change while contributing the least to its causes.

Right to access to safe drinking water and sanitation

The right to access to safe drinking water and sanitation means that all individuals have the right to access sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. This right is explicitly recognized by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and is found in various human rights instruments. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has also affirmed this right.

Current Issues

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a major global challenge. Decades of mismanagement, over-extraction, and contamination of freshwater resources have exacerbated water stress and deteriorated aquatic ecosystems. The negative effects of climate change further aggravate this situation by disrupting precipitation and water cycles. Globally, 2.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water services, and 3.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. Nearly 698 million school-age children do not have basic sanitation services at school. States have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to water and sanitation. This includes cross-sectoral measures such as the allocation of resources and the adoption of policies targeting the most in need, as well as the allocation of financial and human resources to historically discriminated groups.

Right to healthy and sustainably produced food

The right to healthy food means that every individual must have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means to procure it. This right is crucial for the realization of many other human rights, including health, life, and well-being.

 

Current Issues

Incidents of hunger are increasing due to extreme climatic events. Extreme weather events related to climate change, environmental degradation due to air and water pollution, and unsustainable agricultural practices are among the main causes of inaccessibility to healthy and sustainably produced food. It is projected that nearly 600 million people will be chronically undernourished by 2030. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. States have the obligation to respect people's existing access to food, protect this right against violations by third parties, and strengthen individuals' access to resources and means of ensuring food security. They must adopt climate-resilient agricultural practices to protect soils and ecosystems while improving food productivity.

Right to a non-toxic environment

The right to a non-toxic environment means that all individuals have the right not to be exposed to toxic substances harmful to their health. This right is crucial for the enjoyment of many other human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, culture, and an adequate standard of living.

Current Issues

Toxic substances, such as hazardous chemicals and waste, are found in the food, air, water, and places where people work and live. Pollution and toxic substances have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights. Marginalized groups, in particular, bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to these hazardous substances. Sacrifice zones, where communities suffer devastating physical and mental health consequences due to pollution, are particularly concerning in the developing world. States must prevent and remedy the harmful effects of hazardous substances for present and future generations.

Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems

The right to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems means that all individuals have the right to benefit from balanced and diverse ecosystems, essential for many human rights, including the rights to life, food, water and sanitation, health, and culture.

Current Issues

Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are indispensable for the realization of human rights. The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems directly threaten these rights. The United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) aims to support and intensify efforts to prevent, halt, and reverse ecosystem degradation worldwide. The restoration and conservation of ecosystems contribute to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other multilateral environmental agreements. States and other actors are obligated to address biodiversity loss, prevent its negative impacts on human rights, and ensure that actions taken to address biodiversity loss are equitable, sustainable, and non-discriminatory.

Procedural rights
 

Procedural rights are not exclusive to the right to a healthy environment, but they are an integral part of it. For more details, please refer to our page dedicated to environmental democratic rights. However, it is crucial to address these rights here due to their importance.

Access to environmental information

This right is essential to enable individuals to protect and defend their right to a healthy environment. The Rio Declaration stipulates that "[a]t the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities." This means that everyone should have access to information about the environment, including dangerous activities, which is crucial for informed and evidence-based decision-making. States have the obligation to make this information widely available. It must be easily accessible, and understandable by all, including vulnerable individuals, and cover essential issues related to the environment, safety, and human life.

Public participation in environmental decision-making

The right to participate in environmental decision-making means that citizens must be able to participate meaningfully, effectively, timely, and continuously in decisions that have a real impact on the environment. This participation must be inclusive and pay particular attention to marginalized and vulnerable groups. The Rio Declaration emphasizes the importance of allowing each individual to participate in decision-making at the national level. This right is also enshrined in international and regional instruments.

Access to justice and effective remedies

The right to obtain justice and effective remedies in cases of environmental degradation is essential. Without this right, individuals cannot have their voices heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination, or hold decision-makers accountable. This right, codified in national, regional, and international instruments, requires that present and future generations affected by environmental degradation have access to effective remedies. It is also included in the Rio Declaration, which stipulates that states must provide effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings.

The Anthropocentric Nature of the Right to a Healthy Environment

 

The right to a healthy environment, as recognized by the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly, is a human right, meaning that it is primarily designed to protect human beings. This anthropocentric approach means that environmental protection is justified by its impacts on people. However, integrating the ecocentric dimension into the right to a healthy environment, in addition to the anthropocentric dimension, could provide more comprehensive protection of natural elements.

Illustration of the Ecocentric Dimension of the Right to a Healthy Environment by Latin American Jurisprudence

 

The jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognizes this ecocentric dimension. For example, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in its Advisory Opinion OC-23/17 issued on November 15, 2017, affirmed that the right to a healthy environment protects elements such as forests, rivers, and seas, beyond their immediate utility for humans. Inspired by this advisory opinion, courts in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and especially Mexico have issued judgments recognizing that the right to a healthy environment includes two dimensions:

  • Healthy Environments for Humans: This includes clean air, safe drinking water, a safe climate, sustainable food, and protection from toxic substances.

  • Ecologically Healthy Environments: This right also guarantees the ecological health of environments, independently of the direct impacts on humans.

This evolution in legal recognition illustrates how the right to a healthy environment can extend to protect nature not only for the benefits it provides to humans but also for its intrinsic value. Thus, the right to a healthy environment can go beyond the traditional anthropocentric approach by adopting an immersive anthropocentric approach, as suggested by Natalia Kobylarz. This allows us to recognize and value the interdependence between humans and nature. By protecting the environment not only for its direct benefits to human health but also for its intrinsic importance, we ensure a more holistic and sustainable protection of our planet, responding to the current challenges of the triple climate crisis.

The extent of State and non-State actor obligations regarding the Right to a Healthy Environment

 

Primary Obligations: The Responsibilities of States

 

All human rights are accompanied by corresponding obligations for states. In 2018, John Knox, former Special Rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment, published a set of Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, summarizing three categories of state obligations: procedural, substantive, and special obligations toward vulnerable individuals.

Guiding Principles for Implementing the Right to a Healthy Environment

The application and interpretation of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment must always be guided by a series of principles derived from international human rights law and international environmental law. These principles include:

 

Prevention principle

The prevention of climate and environmental damage, as well as the associated human rights consequences, is paramount.

 

Precautionary principle

Faced with threats of serious and irreversible damage to human health or the environment, the lack of complete scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for delaying preventive action.

 

Non-discrimination and equality principle

States must avoid exacerbating climate and environmental injustice and strive to improve these situations. It is established that vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as indigenous populations, the poorest populations, and women, disproportionately bear the burden of environmental damage while having unequal access to environmental resources.

 

Polluter pays principle

The cost of remedying environmental damage should be borne by the polluter. For more details, see our dedicated page on the polluter pays principle.

The best available scientific knowledge

State responses to the global environmental crisis must be based on the most advanced scientific knowledge, such as that provided by the IPCC reports.

Non-regression principle

States cannot weaken standards related to the right to a healthy environment without compelling reasons. For more details, see our page on the non-regression principle.

International Cooperation

Cooperation among states at different levels is essential to address global environmental challenges.

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

Developed states, having caused the majority of the planetary crisis, must take primary responsibility for financing and implementing solutions.

Procedural Obligations

 

The procedural rights related to access to information, public participation, and access to justice with effective remedies provide civil society with powerful means to interact with governments and ensure they meet their obligations. Procedural obligations of states include:

  • Providing the public with accessible, timely, affordable, and understandable information on the causes and consequences of the climate and environmental crisis.

  • Integrating ecological education and human rights into school curricula, from kindergarten to university.

  • Ensuring meaningful, informed, inclusive, and equitable public participation in all environmental decision-making.

  • Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal and effective protection against it in relation to the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment.

  • Respecting and protecting the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly concerning climate and environmental matters.

 
Substantive Obligations
 

Substantive obligations of states are divided into three main components: respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the right to a healthy environment.

Respecting the Right to a Healthy Environment

States are obligated to refrain from causing significant environmental harm, whether to the air, water, or soil, through their direct actions or those of state-owned enterprises. They must ensure that their policies and activities do not compromise environmental quality.

Protecting the Right to a Healthy Environment

States must protect the right to a healthy environment against infringements by third parties, particularly businesses. This involves the adoption and enforcement of rigorous laws, regulations, and standards that respect and protect human rights. States must also ensure that these standards are applied effectively and non-discriminatorily, preventing violations and sanctioning offenders.

 

Fulfilling the Right to a Healthy Environment

States are required to take proactive measures to realize the right to a healthy environment. This includes establishing and maintaining essential infrastructure such as drinking water, wastewater, and waste management systems. States must ensure the effective and non-discriminatory enforcement of their environmental standards, ensuring that both public and private actors comply with existing regulations.

 

Obligations of non-State actors and Businesses 


Businesses and other non-state actors also have significant obligations regarding the protection of the right to a healthy environment. States have the duty to protect human rights from actual or potential harm caused by all businesses located within their territory or jurisdiction. This requires states to act with due diligence, meaning they must take all reasonable and appropriate measures to protect, preserve, and fulfill human rights, including the right to a healthy environment.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Businesses must respect their responsibilities concerning climate, environment, and human rights. However, voluntary corporate social and environmental responsibility is largely insufficient. States must free themselves from corporate influence and mandate that businesses respect their responsibilities regarding climate, environment, and human rights. Environmental rights legislation is often weak, riddled with gaps and loopholes, and not implemented or enforced meaningfully. States must therefore set clear objectives for businesses by adopting strong laws, regulations, standards, and policies regarding climate and environmental rights.

State Supervision

States must also supervise and monitor all businesses that may cause significant environmental harm. Effective implementation requires adequate institutions with the authority, capacity, resources, and procedures necessary to prevent, investigate, punish, and remedy climate and environmental impacts on human rights. Recent examples of laws include the Duty of Vigilance Law in France, the Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains Act in Germany, and the Responsible and Sustainable International Business Conduct Bill in the Netherlands.


Sources:

1. The Right to a Healthy Environment, a User’s Guide. David R. Boyd, former Special Rapporteur on the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, 2024.
2. Unpacking the Right to a Healthy Environment: How National and Regional Laws and Jurisprudence Clarify the Scope and Content of the Universal Right, Earth Rights Advocacy (ERA) and Universal Rights Group (URG) NYU School of Law, January 2023

bottom of page