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The Right to a Healthy Environment

There will be no human rights on a dead planet. There will be no jobs, no equality, no democracy, education, culture or freedom. That’s the message I shared earlier this week, when I spoke in the European Parliament in a debate on the right to a healthy environment. 

On October 8th, in a landmark ruling, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing that the right to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. Upon adoption, the Council asked governments and world leaders to come on board and work together to ensure that this newly recognised right is implemented. 

Debate on the subject this week in the European Parliament was our first step towards answering that call to action. The UN Resolution recognising our right to a healthy environment is important, of course, but we need this mainstreamed in EU legislation in order to see the sort of change that’s so urgently needed and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in economic and social areas. 

Scientists warn we are now in the decisive decade for humanity’s possible future on earth. The right to a healthy environment recognises that protection of the environment must be top of the agenda.

It’s a right that essentially underpins all other rights. Without a healthy environment we are, as the saying goes, on a hiding to nothing.  The right to a healthy environment, a thriving biosphere, is simply fundamental.

A staggering statistic from the WHO puts it into perspective. According to their report, 24% of all global deaths in 2016, roughly 13.7 million deaths, were linked to the environment, due to risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure. 

Another report, published recently by Global Witness, outlined the shocking fact that 227 environmental defenders were murdered in 2020 while protecting their lands. These were individuals and groups, in the main living in the most economically deprived areas of the world, places most impacted by the ravages of the climate emergency. These were people who had friends and families. People who died while trying to assert what the UN says is a human right. 

Momentum is gathering on this issue, and the debate in the European Parliament this week was watched closely by many international organisations and experts, who have been calling for global recognition of the right to a healthy and safe environment as a universal right.

Article 37 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union sets out the principle of integration of environmental protection into the policies of the Union. However, this article fails to recognise or proclaim any individual right to environmental protection, or to a healthy environment. 

Any change to the Charter, in terms of expanding the protection enshrined pursuant to Article 37, would require an amendment to the Treaties.

In September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called for an ambitious new legal framework, both at national and European level, to anchor “the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” They presented a draft of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which would make such a right enforceable in law in all countries which ratified it.

As part of the negotiations on the EU Climate Law, our Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament were successful in getting wording included around the protection of EU citizens’ rights to a safe environment and the responsibility of relevant institutions and Member States to take the measures necessary to address risks, both to people’s lives and welfare and to the natural world on which they depend, posed by the global climate emergency. 

At the moment I’m involved in intense negotiations (as the European Parliament’s lead negotiator) with the European Council and Commission, on the Environment Action Programme to 2030. This is far-reaching environmental legislation. As part of those negotiations I am strongly defending the Parliament’s call on recognising the right to a healthy environment.  

In May of this year, a Parliament report was adopted on the effects of climate change on human rights and the role of environmental defenders. The report calls for the EU ‘to take action to introduce the right to a safe and healthy environment in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU’. That same report also called on the EU to support the call for global recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The Parliament’s report on the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy also ‘considers that the right to a healthy environment should be recognised in the Charter and that the EU should lead the initiative to recognise a similar right internationally’. 

Around half the world’s countries have recognised, to some degree, a “right to a healthy environment” in their constitutions, including 32 Council of Europe member States.

Unless recognition of the right to a healthy environment at all levels is replicated in courtrooms across the Union, it will just be more talk and no action. With the 8th Environment Action Programme, the European Parliament has backed my calls for this fundamental right of EU citizens to be defended by the highest EU courts. The fight for the wellbeing of our planet and our people continues. Against the backdrop of a climate and biodiversity emergency it has never been more urgent. A healthy environment is vital in the fight, because, as I said when I addressed the European Parliament on Tuesday – this is a fight for survival. 

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