The human right to a healthy environment: implications for climate actionBMJ 2023; 381 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1271 (Published 05 June 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1271
The final hours of COP27 saw a dramatic shift from entrenched gridlock to historical firsts. This included recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in the outcome text1—called the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan. This was accompanied by a breakthrough commitment by the world’s wealthiest nations (and highest cumulative emitters) to establish a fund to address climate impacts (“loss and damage”) in vulnerable countries,2 and an inaugural mention of “food” in a COP summary text.3 Meanwhile, despite support from 80 countries including island nations, Latin American countries, the European Union, India, and the United Kingdom, language on fossil fuel phase-out in the cover decision remained unimproved since COP26 in Glasgow, (i.e. the wording remains “phasedown of unabated4 coal power”). Now, governments prepare to meet in Bonn, Germany, for the annual interim negotiations intended to advance progress between COPs—that is, the 58th meeting of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Bodies, or “SB58.” The outcomes of SB58, which will take place from 5-15th June, will provide the foundations for decisions taken at COP28 this December.
The human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, as recognised in a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2022,5 is intrinsic to climate action, both in terms of evaluating the wider decisions taken at COP27, and as a fundamental requirement for universal climate justice. Nevertheless, at one point, reference to the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment was removed entirely from the outcome text, before being reinstated in the final iteration. Despite being included in the final text, this right to a healthy environment is supported by some outcomes of COP27, but undermined by others.
The links between a healthy environment and climate loss and damages are plain. Indeed, the July 2022 UN resolution names “the impact of climate change” first in a list of drivers which “interfere with the enjoyment of a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.” Work at SB58 and beyond to ensure the loss and damage fund is fit for purpose—namely to serve the communities which have been calling for its establishment over the course of decades—is vital to ensure that health harming impacts of climate change are addressed.
On the other hand, the failure of governments at COP27 to agree to the just and equitable phase-out of all fossil fuels, not only the phase down of unabated coal, objectively undermines the right to a healthy environment. This is not only in terms of the manifold health impacts of climate change, but also of air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, and health threats which arise throughout fossil fuel extraction and production.6 Crucially, attention must also be afforded to the nature of the transition away from fossil fuels: affordable energy access must be maintained and expanded not least to guarantee safe cooking and heating; livelihoods must be protected; and the need for minerals for renewable energy infrastructure such as solar panels and batteries must not lead to repetition of colonial and capitalist patterns of extraction.
The decision culminating from COP negotiations on agriculture, which have historically focused on adaptation and resilience, for the first time alluded to “climate action”7—permitting a broadening of the discussion to also include mitigation. This provides opportunities for considering the importance of healthy sustainable diets and reductions of food loss and waste, with large scale potential benefits for both climate change mitigation and improved nutrition. The mentions of “food” in the cover text are however preceded by two mentions of “lifestyles.” Low-carbon lifestyles and consumption patterns, including healthy sustainable diets which are rich in plant-based produce and low in animal derived protein and processed foods, are a prerequisite for overall emissions reductions. But without healthy environments, including access and affordability of nutritious diets, a “lifestyles” framing may lead to narratives of blame and overemphasis on individual responsibility to make sustainable choices, which in reality remain out of reach for many. System change (not only across food and agriculture, but energy and transport), driven by progressive policymaking and robust community engagement, must remain paramount.
Beyond the agreements brokered and outstanding shortfalls at the close of COP27, careful consideration should be paid to how embedding the human right to a healthy environment within the UNFCCC architecture can also be leveraged as a litigation tool at local, national, and international level. The number of lawsuits globally relating to climate inaction has risen in recent years, with more cases to be expected as climate impacts, public awareness, and legal precedents grow in force.
The COP process is yet to fully deliver. Steps taken at COP27 could herald a shift towards reflecting climate justice in negotiations which have too often served politics over people. The scenarios emerging from SB58 will provide a prognosis for outcomes to be delivered at COP28.
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.