Esteban Benites, Unsplash

UN members must recognise a healthy environment as a fundamental human right

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) ended with yet more dithering. Our governments must work together to codify international laws and regulations that recognise the human right to a healthy environment, protect the climate and restore biodiversity, writes Patrizia Heidegger.

Diplomats, environment ministers, government and UN experts, civil society and researchers in their thousands gathered at the 5th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5) on 22 and 23 February 2021.

UNEA has been referred to as the “world’s parliament for the environment” and is the highest decision-making body on environmental matters globally. Due to the pandemic, this year’s assembly has been split into two parts, a virtual UNEA 5.1 this week, and a probably physical and full UNEA 5.2 in the spring of 2022 at the UN Environment Programme’s headquarters in Nairobi.

Political hibernation

Governments decided that the online UNEA 5.1 would only deal with organisational matters, such as adopting the new medium-term strategy for the UN Environment Programme and its budget.

The pandemic has put many of us in a kind of hibernation, but the destruction of the planet continues unhampered. For that reason, civil society is vocal in reminding governments of the urgent need to find solutions to global environmental problems – such as plastic pollution – and to stop kicking the can down the road.

In a joint statement by hundreds of civil society organisations to the UNEA, we call on governments to take the pandemic as a wakeup call to speed up global environmental decision-making, to step up ambition and to accelerate the pace and scale of implementation.

Sustained action

Tired of the endless dithering at international conferences, civil society is demanding a new approach to decision-making that matches the urgency of the current crises. We need to focus the UNEA and other relevant international forums to engage all stakeholders in a meaningful way in planning actions and taking decisions. We need to cut red tape in favour of delivering results, enhancing transparency and boosting accountability.

UNEA 5.2 and the other key moments on the international agenda – such as the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity in China and the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change in the UK – must be used to take concrete and actionable decisions.

UNEA 5 revolves around the theme of strengthening actions that serve both nature and the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the international community’s opportunity to address the reality that the current economic system is destructive for humans, the environment, animals and the natural world.

The constant flow of large-scale projects, from biodiversity-destroying industrial agriculture to massive mining and extraction activities, is driving this destruction. Existing economic and development paradigms need to be rethought in such a way as to prioritise the wellbeing of people eand nature over endless economic growth through the redistribution of wealth.

Political ecosystems

As civil society, we are turning up the heat on governments to put a freeze on this destruction at UNEA 5.2. We demand they take action to protect biodiversity equitably, to reduce the use resources to sustainable levels, and to share fairly the benefits of natural resources and knowledge.

Governments also need to hold to account those companies that devastate and pollute ecosystems and offer strong protection for those people at the frontline, our environmental defenders, who too often risk their lives to call out harmful business practices. 

Civil society around the globe is calling on the COP15 to deliver an ambitious and equitable post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that must reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and work towards recovery by 2050. Corporations who contribute to biodiversity destruction and human rights violations cannot be allowed to promote false solutions that greenwash destructive practices and prevent real action.

Biodiversity protection needs to be grounded in legally binding obligations for companies. ‘Nature-based solutions’ are promoted by some business stakeholders to advance the idea that nature can simply compensate for or offset the continued burning of fossil fuels rather than phasing out fossil fuels. This is a false solution because it does not slow climate change or stop the destruction of biodiversity.

The right chemistry

The COVID 19 pandemic has put in hibernation the process to adopt a post-2020 framework on chemicals and waste. But this cannot wait any longer. Civil society is demanding of the UNEA to establish an international instrument that ensures the highest health and environmental standards for toxic chemicals that are not yet covered by existing multilateral agreements. It would also include a legal mechanism to phase out highly hazardous pesticides by 2030 and the full adoption of the globally harmonised system of classification, labelling and safe handling of chemicals (GHS) by all member states.

The pandemic has also slowed done global action to curb plastic pollution through a new global agreement. The current crisis has even resulted in a further acceleration of plastic pollution. While the opportunity has passed for UNEA 5.1, environmental campaigners are working with progressive governments towards a decision at UNEA 5.2 to adopt a mandate to start negotiations for a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. 

These negotiations need to include the communities most impacted by plastic pollution along the entire production and disposal process, including those affected by petroleum extraction, the chemical industry, landfills and incinerators, informal waste dumps and those communities depending on polluted ocean resources. 

This instrument needs to adopt an approach that not only makes the polluter pay but also covers the phasing out and reduction of both plastic production and plastic waste. We must be able to hold plastic manufacturers accountable for knowingly and willingly placing products on the market that harm human health and the environment for centuries to come. 

Civil society is calling out false solutions and the attempts of fossil fuel companies to compensate for the drop in oil consumption by boosting plastic production.

Half a century of struggle

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the first UN conference dedicated to the environment. This was a crucial moment in history that boosted international environmental law-making and kick started European environmental policies.

When the international community gathers next year at the Stockholm +50 conference it must ensure that environmental principles and rights that have emerged under environmental law globally and that are enshrined in constitutions and laws in many countries are fully and globally recognised. This includes the codification of a human right to a healthy environment, the recognition of ecocide as an international crime, the protection of environmental defenders, and the safeguarding of the rights of animals and nature.

We cannot waste more time. The international community must wake up to the challenges of today and take courageous decision and actions at all levels.