What is the Right to an Adequate or Healthy Environment?
The right to an adequate environment is a precondition for the realization of other human rights including the rights to health, life, food, and an adequate standard of living. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) notes that States must realize the right to health through, among other steps, the improvement of all aspects of environmental hygiene.
The right to an adequate environment has also been recognized in a wide range of other global and regional human rights instruments, as well through the establishment of the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
What are the relevant sources?
Human rights law explicitly recognizes the environment as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights including the right to life, health, food, privacy and freedoms, such as the freedom of information and political participation, association and expression, as well as cultural rights. These rights and freedoms are explicitly outlined in key international human rights conventions and treaties including:
- Article 3 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantee the right to life, which is negatively affected by environmental degradation and pollution.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights protects the right to food, which is threatened by environmental pollution, disasters, and climate change.
- Article 24, Paragraph 2c of the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates States “to combat disease and malnutrition… through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.” General Comment No. 15 (2013) specifically recognizes that environmental degradation, climate change and pollution affect childrens’ health and development.
- The Vienna Declaration on Human Rights specifically recognizes pollution and other forms of environmental degradation as serious threats to the basic human rights to life and health.
- Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration, which resulted from growing concerns about the negative consequences of environmental degradation, recognizes the right to live in a safe and clean environment as a fundamental human right.
- Article 24 of African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) states that “all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development,” while Articles 7 and 16 of the ACHPR recognize the relationship between environmental quality and human health as well as the role of procedural rights in protecting the environment.
- Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights has linked human rights to environmental protection and recognizes the relationship between the environment and the rights to life, fair hearing and property. Similarly, citing Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court has found pollution to be a breach of the right to private life and the home.
- The American Convention on Human Rights recognizes the relationship between the environment and the rights to life, humane treatment, fair trial, freedom of expression and access to information, property, participation in government and judicial protection.
What are the relevant human rights issues related to the environment?
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the world is facing triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and nature loss that directly threaten a broad range of human rights, including the rights to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development, and even life itself. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has concluded that as these environmental threats intensify, they will constitute “the single greatest challenge to human rights in our era.”
In particular, there is grave concern that the climate emergency may limit the application of human rights law. In the book Health and Human Rights in a Changing World, Stephen Humphreys explained that “the most severe climate change impacts will be catastrophic — drought, floods, famines, mass migration, wars —and will affect large numbers of people.” Subsequently, governments may move to limit or suspend human rights constraints. As a result, legal scholars and human rights activists have advocated for the development of human rights-based climate change policies.
What can health professionals do?
Health professionals play a strong role in safeguarding the environment as well as protecting the human rights of their patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other international health organizations have confirmed that every health worker can take action.
- For example, the World Medical Association adopted and reaffirmed the position that physicians must protect the environment, and, in collaboration with partner organizations, developed a free environmental sustainability programme called My Green Doctor to save energy and promote healthier practices.
- The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (AHNE) has also identified several steps nurses can take to protect the environment and their patients. The ANHE has produced an e-book on environmental health in nursing and also offers a fellowship for nurses interested in learning more.
- Similarly, the International Pharmaceutical Federation is working to achieve sustainability in pharmacy and has also outlined steps pharmacists can take to mitigate environmental degradation and air pollution.
In particular, the WHO has outlined how health professionals can respond to climate change with five key actions. The excerpt below describes these actions in detail :
Learn, assess and plan. Health professionals can learn about the specific threats to the populations and patients with whom they work. They can assess their own and their health system’s capacities to cope and they can work with others to plan adaptation and mitigation strategies. Better evidence is needed for the effectiveness and efficiency of public health and health service measures to protect health from environmental threats, particularly climate change. Health professionals can respond to this need by engaging in systematic, interdisciplinary applied research.
Strengthen adaptive capacity. Many of the projected impacts on health are avoidable or controllable through application of well-known and well-tested public health and health service interventions. These include public education, surveillance of diseases, disaster preparedness, mosquito control, food hygiene and inspection, nutritional supplementation, vaccines, primary and mental health care, and training. Where these capacities are weak, health professionals can work with others to strengthen them.
Act as stewards of health-related mitigation. By engaging in local public health and environmental policymaking, health professionals can ensure that interventions to mitigate climate change are designed in a way that maximises human wellbeing. It is essential to assess the health implications of decisions taken in other sectors, such as urban planning, transport, energy supply, food production, land use and water resources. In this way, health professionals can support decisions that provide opportunities for improving health, the environment and the economy, such as investment in sustainable transport and cleaner domestic energy.
Lead by example. Health professionals and the health sector can enhance their own moral authority to lead by reducing the carbon emissions of their own hospital or clinic, improving patient care and saving money. Six action areas include: managing energy, transport, procurement (including food), buildings and landscape, employment and skills, and community engagement. Good practice in these areas has been shown to improve staff health and morale, create healthier local populations, stimulate faster patient recovery rates and save money.
Advocate for health to be at the centre of all climate change policies and plans. Health professionals can use their knowledge and authority to inform and influence action in key national and international processes that guide policy and resources for work on climate change, such as preparation of national communications, national adaptation programmes of action and international agreements.
This page was written by Tara Ornstein in September 2021.
 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Environmental crisis: High Commissioner calls for leadership by Human Rights Council member states. New York, 2021.
 Humphreys, S., Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide. Health and Human Rights in a Changing World. Routledge, New York, 2014, p. 501-513.
 WHO, Factsheet Did you know? By taking action on climate change you can strengthen public health. Geneva, 2015.