New UN Special Rapporteur Links the Right to a Healthy Environment to Air Pollution’s Deadly Impact Across the Globe

Posted on April 12, 2019 by Susan Kath

Professor John Knox, former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, began in 2012 to study the obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council special procedures. When his two terms ended in 2018, he had mapped the statements of human rights bodies on human rights obligations relating to the environment, and produced thematic reports covering human rights obligations relating to climate change, biodiversity, and children’s rights. Knox also compiled more than 100 good practices in fulfilling those obligations and helped to establish a website for environmental defenders. His capstone contribution, the Framework Principles, identifies 16 principles relating to human rights and the environment and explains how existing human rights obligations should be applied in the environmental context.

The ultimate goal, UN recognition of the human right to a healthy environment, has now been put before the General Assembly by Knox’s successor, Professor David Boyd, who presented a comprehensive argument for the right to that body in the fall of 2018. Boyd, a champion of the right, will be vigorously campaigning for its recognition over the next three years, along with other projects for his mandate.

With the issuance of his most recent report in February, Boyd looks beyond the general right and focuses on the components of the right---in this case, the right to breathe clean air. Around the world, air quality is degraded by both ambient and household air pollution, with the adverse health effects highest in low- and middle-income countries. Notably, more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in regions that exceed World Health Organization guidelines for healthy ambient air quality, specifically with respect to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). What does this mean in real terms? It means that over 6 billion people, including 2 billion children, are breathing polluted air with adverse consequences: taken together, ambient and household air pollution contribute to 7 million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of approximately 600,000 children.  Unsurprisingly, most of those impacted are also the most vulnerable—women, children, the elderly, minorities, indigenous peoples and members of traditional communities, and people living in poverty.

So what does Boyd offer as the way forward? First, he observes that poor air quality has implications for an array of human rights: the rights to life, health, water, food, housing and an adequate standard of living. Second, he reaffirms the position advanced by Knox that States have obligations to protect the enjoyment of human rights from environmental harm. As embodied in Knox’s Framework Principles, that means States have procedural, substantive, and special obligations towards those in vulnerable situations. Third, he identifies the seven key steps that States must take in fulfilling the right to breathe clean air:

  • monitor air quality and impacts on human health
  • assess sources of air pollution
  • make information publicly available, including public health advisories
  • establish air quality legislation, regulations, standards and policies
  • develop air quality action plans at the local, national, and, if necessary, regional levels
  • implement an air quality action plan  and enforce the standard
  • evaluate progress and, if necessary, strengthen the plan to ensure that the standards are met

With each of these steps, States must fully inform the public and provide an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Businesses, a major source of air pollution, should comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles. Boyd also notes that special attention must be paid to environmental defenders engaged in activities to protect the right to clean air.

Boyd also explains that not all the news is bad, sharing a number of good practices, such as laws, policies, programs and initiatives that are lessening the impact of human rights violations caused by air pollution. These include establishing or improving air quality monitoring networks in places like Morocco and Azerbaijan and decreasing the proportion of households using solid fuels for cooking and heating in Latin America.

Boyd closes the report with a list of 20 recommendations that States should consider as part of their national air quality action plans, and he also implores us to act:  

The failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to breathe clean air is inflicting a terrible toll on people across the world. The statistics presented in the present report depict a public health catastrophe, yet the numbers fail to capture the magnitude of human suffering involved. Each premature death, every illness and every disability afflicts an individual with hopes, dreams and loved ones. Air pollution is a preventable problem. The solutions-laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies-are known. Implementing these solutions will of course entail large investments, but the benefits of fulfilling the right to breathe clean air for all of humanity are incalculable.

Incalculable, indeed. And worth our collective effort to pursue at every level.



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