27 May 2020 Story Environmental rights and governance

Good health is an environmental right

The COVID-19 crisis is a reminder of the intimate relationship between humans, animals and the environment.

There are several human rights related to the environment- these are our environmental rights. Without clean, safe, healthy and sustainable ecosystems, numerous human rights cannot be fulfilled. The right to health; in addition to being a universally recognized human right, is intertwined with ecosystem health. Good health is a human and environmental right.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that if we want our ecosystems to take care of us, we need to take care of them.  On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months- 75 percent of these infections emanate from animals. These zoonotic diseases can spill over to humans when we destroy habitats and trade illegally in wildlife, increasing our exposure to pathogens.

Zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are one of the many ways in which the environment impacts human health.

Air pollution, for instance,  kills over 6 million people each year. Airborne pollutants from cookstoves, coal-fired power plants, vehicles, industries, wildfires, and dust storms cause a significant portion of global deaths from strokes, lung cancer, heart attacks and respiratory diseases. Air pollution has been shown to exacerbate COVID-19 deaths.

Every day, 4,000 children die  from diseases caused by polluted water and inadequate sanitation, whilst toxins present in crops and livestock can accumulate in human bodies if ingested. Freshwater, marine, coastal, land and soil resources are devastated by pollution from municipal, industrial and agricultural waste; wastewater and nutrient run-off; power generation; heavy industry; and automobiles. This harm to natural resources subsequently adversely impacts public health.

Humans use over 100,000 different chemical elements and compounds including lead, mercury, cadmium and persistent organic pollutants. If not managed properly, chemicals can severely harm human health, causing acute poisoning, cancers, birth defects, neurological disorders, hormone disruption and other illnesses.

Whilst pollution has decreased during the ongoing pandemic, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), warned against viewing this as an environmental win. “Visible, positive impacts are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress,” she said.

Confinement is not a solution to the world’s environmental problems: sustainable consumption and production is.

Along with scaling up sustainable consumption and production, and turning to nature-based solutions, the world’s COVID-19 recovery plan should incorporate a rights-based approach to tackle pollution. By using a human rights perspective to decide, apply and evaluate plans and activities, we can beat pollution whilst we re-build following the COVID-19 crisis. Fulfilling the human rights obligations related to the environment ensures that people and planet thrive as one.

Since environmental and human health are mutually reinforcing, relaxing environmental governance undermines efforts to counter the current pandemic. Bolstering and defending our economies is a priority in these debilitating times, reducing environmental protections is ultimately counter-productive to bettering public health.

By promoting sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste, encouraging global stewardship of nature and biodiversity, UNEP is committed to supporting countries through the COVID-19 crisis and into a resilient and sustainable future as laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals. Promoting the realisation of environmental rights is an important part of this work.