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The right to a clean and healthy environment: 6 things you need to know

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On 8 October, loud and unusual applause reverberated around the chamber of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A battle fought for decades by environmental activists and rights’ defenders, had finally borne fruit.

For the first time ever, the United Nations body whose mission is to promote and protect human rights around the world, passed a resolution recognising access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.

The text also calls on countries to work together, and with other partners, to implement this breakthrough.

“Professionally that was probably the most thrilling experience that I ever have had or that I ever will have. It was a massive team victory. It took literally millions of people, and years and years of work to achieve this resolution”, said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, who was in the room when President Nazhat Shameem from Fiji, brought down her gavel, announcing the voting results.

43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions counted as a unanimous victory to pass the text that cites the efforts of at least 1,100 civil society, child, youth and indigenous people’s organizations, who have been campaigning for global recognition, implementation and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  

But why is this recognition important, and what does it mean for climate change-affected communities?

Here are six key things you need to know, compiled by us here at UN News.

1. First, let’s recall what the Human Rights Council does, and what its resolutions mean

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.

The Council is made up of 47 UN Member States which are elected by the absolute majority in the General Assembly and represent every region of the world.

Human Rights Council resolutions are “political expressions” that represent the position of the Council’s members (or the majority of them) on particular issues and situations. These documents are drafted and negotiated among States with to advance specific human rights issues.

They usually provoke a debate among States, civil society and intergovernmental organisations; establish new ‘standards’, lines or principles of conduct; or reflect existing rules of conduct.

Resolutions are drafted by a “core group”: Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, were the countries who brought resolution 48/13 for its adoption in the council, recognising for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is indeed a human right.

2. It was a resolution decades in the making

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with a historical declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.

UN Member States back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” calling for concrete action. They called for both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to act.

Since 2008, the Maldives, a Small Island Developing State on the frontline of climate change impacts, has been tabling a series of resolutions on human rights and climate change, and in the last decade, on human rights and environment.

In the last few years, the work of the Maldives and its allied States, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment and different NGOs, have been moving the international community towards the declaration of a new universal right.

Support for UN recognition of this right grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was endorsed by UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as well as more than 1,100 civil society organisations from around the world. Nearly 70 states on the Human Rights Council also added their voices to a call by the council’s core group on human rights and environment for such action, and 15 UN agencies also sent a rare joint declaration advocating for it.

“A surge in emerging zoonotic diseases, the climate emergency, pervasive toxic pollution and a dramatic loss of biodiversity have brought the future of the planet to the top of the international agenda”, a group of UN experts said in a statement released in June this year, on World Environment Day.

3. It was a David vs Goliath story…

To finally reach the vote and decision, the core group lead intensive inter-governmental negotiations, discussions and even experts’ seminars, over the past few years.

Levy Muwana, a Youth Advocate and environmentalist from Zambia, participated in one of the seminars.

“As a young child, I was affected with bilharzia, a parasitic disease, because I was playing in the dirty water near my household.

A few years later, a girl died in my community from cholera. These events are sadly common and occurring more often.

Water-born infectious diseases are increasing worldwide, especially across sub-Saharan Africa, due to the changing climate”, he told Council members last August.

Muwana made clear that his story was not unique, as millions of children worldwide are significantly impacted by the devastating consequences of the environmental crisis. “1.7 million of them die every year from inhaling contaminated air or drinking polluted water”, he said.

The activist, along with over 100.000 children and allies had signed a petition for the right to a healthy environment to be recognised, and they were finally heard.

“There are people who want to continue the process of exploiting the natural world and have no reservations about harming people to do that. So those very powerful opponents have kept this room from going forward for decades.

It’s almost like a David and Goliath story that all of these civil society organizations were able to overcome this powerful opposition, and now we have this new tool that we can use to fight for a more just and sustainable world”, says David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment.

4. But what good is a non-legally binding resolution?

Mr. Boyd explains that the resolution should be a catalyst for more ambitious action on every single environmental issue that we face.

“It really is historic, and it really is meaningful for everyone because we know right now that 90% of people in the world are breathing polluted air.

“So right off the bat if we can use this resolution as a catalyst for actions to clean up air quality, then we’re going to be improving the lives of billions of people”, he emphasizes.

Human Rights Council resolutions might not be legally binding, but they do contain strong political commitments.

“The best example we have of what kind of a difference these UN resolutions make is if we look back at the resolutions in 2010 that for the first time recognized the right to water. That was a catalyst for governments all over the world who added the right to water to their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws”, Mr. Boyd says.

The Rapporteur cites Mexico, which after adding the right to water in the constitution, has now extended safe drinking water to over 1,000 rural communities.

“There are a billion people who can’t just turn on the tap and have clean, safe water coming out, and so you know, for a thousand communities in rural Mexico, that’s an absolutely life-changing improvement. Similarly, Slovenia, after they put the right to water in their constitution because of the UN resolutions, they then took action to bring safe drinking water to Roma communities living in informal settlements on city outskirts”.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the Sustainable Developing Goals, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.

5. The link between human rights and environment is indisputable

Mr. Boyd has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact that climate change has already had on people’s rights.

In his first country mission as a Special Rapporteur, he met the first community in the world that had to be completely relocated due to rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increased intensity of storm surges.

“You know, from this beautiful waterfront paradise on a Fijian island, they had to move their whole village inland about three kilometers. Older persons, people with disabilities, pregnant women, they’re now separated from the ocean that has sustained their culture and their livelihoods for many generations”.

These situations are not only seen in developing countries. Mr. Boyd also visited Norway where he met Sami indigenous people also facing the impacts of climate change.

“I heard really sad stories there. For thousands of years their culture and their economy has been based on reindeer herding, but now because of warm weather in the winters, even in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, sometimes it rains.

“The reindeer who literally for thousands of years had been able to scrape away snow during the winter to get to the lichens and mosses that sustained them, now can’t scrape away the ice – and they’re starving”.

The story repeats itself in Kenya, where pastoralists are losing their livestock because of droughts that are being exacerbated by climate change.

They have done nothing to cause this global crisis and they’re the ones who are suffering, and that’s why it’s such a human rights issue.

“That’s why it’s such an issue of justice. Wealthy countries and wealthy people need to start to pay for the pollution they’ve created so that we can help these vulnerable communities and these vulnerable peoples to adapt and to rebuild their lives”, Mr. Boyd said.

6. What’s next?

The Council resolution includes an invitation to the UN General Assembly to also consider the matter. The Special Rapporteur says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the body will pass a similar resolution within the next year.

“We need this. We need governments and we need everyone to move with a sense of urgency. I mean, we’re living in a climate, biodiversity, and pollution crisis, and also a crisis of these emerging diseases like COVID which have environmental root causes. And so that’s why this resolution is critically important because it says to every government in the world ‘you have to put human rights at the centre of climate action, of conservation, of addressing pollution and of preventing future pandemics’”.

For Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) environment chief, the resolution is already having important repercussions and a mobilizing impact.

“The next step will be how we translate that on the right to clean air and whether we can push, for instance, for the recognition of WHO’S Global Air Quality Guidelines and the levels of exposure to certain pollutants at a country level. It will also help us to move certain legislation and standards at the national level”, she explains.

Air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide. Dr. Neira calls for the end of this “absurd fight” against the ecosystems and environment.

“All the investments need to be on ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, on making sure that electrification is done with renewable energy and that our food systems are sustainable.”

According to WHO, achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement would save millions of lives every year due to improvements in air quality, diet, and physical activity, among other benefits.

“The climate emergency has become a matter of survival for many populations. Only systemic, profound and rapid changes will make it possible to respond to this global ecological crisis”, says the Special Rapporteur.

For Mr. Boyd, the approval of the historical resolution in the Human Rights Council was a ‘paradoxical’ moment.

“There was this incredible sense of accomplishment and also at the exact same time a sense of how much work remains to be done to take these beautiful words and translate them into changes that will make people’s lives better and make our society more sustainable”.

The newly declared right to a healthy and clean environment will also hopefully influence positively negotiations during the upcoming UN Climate Conference COP26, in Glasgow, which has been described by the UN chief as the last chance to ‘turn the tide’ and end the war on our planet.  

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From mussels to meadows, the sea offers big lessons for all life

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Ocean Image Bank/Erik Lukas

By ALI JONES

In the Tuscan Archipelago, the seagrass meadows capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. The underwater flowering plants have the potential to be an essential tool in the fight against climate change but are vulnerable to disturbance from human activities such as tourism and fishing. 

Coordinated from Cork, Ireland, the four-year Marine SABRES project is bringing people together to work on the conservation and restoration of the ancient beds of Tuscan seagrass as one of its focus areas.

Arctic and archipelagos

The effects of climate change are being felt in oceans all over the world. With 22 institutions from 11 Member States, the EU-funded project will strengthen marine biodiversity in the Tuscan Archipelago, the Arctic and Macaronesia (a group of four volcanic archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean).

For the seagrass growing in the Tuscan Archipelago, that means looking at the impact of tourism on its conservation. Numerous groups – from port authorities to tour operators – are involved in tourism. The project’s first job is to identify these key players, then to discuss feasible options with them and inspire local residents to get involved. 

‘We want to try to enable managers working in these areas to make sustainable decisions,’ said Dr Emma Verling, who is coordinating Marine SABRES at University College Cork. ‘And to empower citizens to engage more with marine biodiversity conservation.’

Life connections

One of the project’s main goals is to make it clear how economic, social and ecological systems are all interlinked.

‘We have to try to help people better understand that we really are being sustained by marine ecosystems,’ said Verling. ‘The Ocean is not just a beautiful thing – there is a real connection between it, our health and our livelihoods.’

Each of the three locations will assemble a group unique to its own activities and help stakeholders tackle social, economic and environmental factors they face in decisions that impact on biodiversity.

A second project in Ireland is driving community engagement with some of Europe’s youngest citizens. A high-tech mobile classroom – known as the Aquaculture Remote Classroom (ARC) – is bringing a new generation of marine resources to primary school children. It’s part of a push to restore and protect our oceans for future generations.

Devised by Ireland’s Seafood Development Agency (BIM) and funded by the EU, the experience features Virtual Reality (VR) headsets giving children a virtual dive into aquaculture to discover the processes of fish and shellfish production.

Children and aquaculture

The roving classroom brings to life the sights and sounds of the sea, explaining how salmon, oysters and mussels are farmed in Irish waters. In Ireland, no point is more than 100 kilometres from the sea. And while many of the youngsters live in coastal communities, they generally know very little about aquaculture.

Thirty thousand children have visited the classroom so far and it has been getting rave reviews.

‘The ARC was amazing – it was great fun,’ is how one school pupil from Shanagolden National School in County Limerick described the experience. ‘We learned all about seafood, the food pyramid and how humans affect the seas and coastal environments.’ Plus: ‘The VR headsets were cool.’

By reaching out to young minds, the project hopes to instil knowledge early and debunk the myths about disease and harm that can plague the aquaculture industry, according to Caroline Bocquel, interim chief executive officer of BIM.

‘ARC is an ideal opportunity to raise students’ awareness of the aquaculture sector and to the get the factual, positive story of Irish aquaculture out to communities,’ Bocquel said. ‘To explain that it’s a force for good that creates jobs, with good career progression.’

Adults too are often uninformed about how aquaculture works and what the dietary benefits of eating fish and seafood are. So when schools are on holiday, the ARC features at seafood festivals and science-outreach events.

On the move

Both ARC and Marine SABRES can be upscaled to other regions and countries.

‘We see the ARC as a template for other European nations for aquaculture education and ultimately being part of a connected, cohesive education network that will drive understanding and appreciation of the benefits of sustainable aquaculture,’ said Bocquel.

Meanwhile, another EU-funded project called Prep4Blue is also putting citizens, policymakers and businesses at the heart of research in the field. Guided by social and sustainable science, the three-year Prep4Blue will provide tools for researchers to engage people in the gathering of knowledge to protect the Ocean.

Coordinated by the French Institute for Ocean Science (IFREMER), it incorporates 17 partners in eight countries.

‘The knowledge is there,’ says Prep4Blue coordinator Dr Natalia Martin Palenzuela, ‘But somehow we don’t change our behaviour.”

All of these projects come up through the EU’s ambitious Mission Ocean and Waters, which is a clarion call to rise to the challenge of protecting and restoring these ecosystems by 2030.

It’s a broad basis for science-based ecological action. ‘The Mission approach intends to increase the uptake of scientific knowledge by citizens and stakeholders including policy makers, consumers, the economic sector and so on,’ said Dr Martin Palenzuela.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

EU MISSION: RESTORE OUR OCEAN AND WATERS

The Mission Ocean & Waters will help achieve the marine and freshwater targets of the European Green Deal, such as protecting 30% of the EU’s sea area and restoring marine eco-systems and 25 000km of free-flowing rivers.

Within the Mission, four ‘lighthouses’ in major sea and river basins are test beds for innovative solutions. The Atlantic-Arctic lighthouse is focusing on shoring up coastal resilience by restoring marine and freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.

It’s a formidable challenge. For the Mission to succeed it needs to mobilise and engage citizens, scientists, policy makers and all stakeholders.

On 24-25 November 2022, the European Commission, with the support of Ireland, will organise an event to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to join the Mission “Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030”, and particularly the Atlantic-Arctic lighthouse. Follow the link to learn more about the event

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Barcelona and Munich become zero waste candidate cities

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The European cities of Barcelona and Munich have signed an official commitment to become zero waste, becoming the biggest cities in Europe that will get the certification.

The Zero Waste Cities Certification is a robust European third-party assessed certification standard, developed by the non-governmental organisation Mission Zero Academy (MiZA) and powered by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE). 

With a population of approximately 1,6 million, Barcelona would become one of the biggest European municipalities implementing a zero waste strategy, with a wide range of waste prevention, reuse and recycling measures in place. The city  has created a dedicated strategy for improvements, engaging widely both with the local community and different stakeholders to facilitate the zero waste transition.

Following this commitment, Barcelona will start implementing their zero waste strategy. Some of the objectives for the coming years are: 

  • Working towards reducing municipal solid waste. The city is including zero waste philosophy around all the waste management;
  • A 67% separate waste collection rate by 2027, while the European average is about 48%;
  • 427 kg of waste generation per capita per year by 2027.

Mentors: Rezero has been the mentor organisation of Barcelona. The Spanish organisation provides knowledge and promotes ideas, regulations and innovative projects so that companies, public administrations and citizens have the opportunity to enjoy a model of production and consumption towards zero waste, without toxic materials or products that are left unused. The Barcelona City Council has been working for years on waste prevention: with the Zero Plastic Commitment, the Carbon Calculator and the Barcelona Zero Waste Plan 2021-2027.
 
Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona said: “Big cities are in debt with their territory, we produce a huge amount of waste and it’s about time we become responsible of it. Barcelona’s commitment with the Zero Waste strategy shows that we do care and that we do act: we aim to be a neutral city and to inspire many others”.

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of ZWE stated: “I remember that when we brought the zero waste concept to Barcelona back in 2010 they called us fools. Today I’m proud that my hometown joins many others in the club of virtuous management of resources. Barcelona still has many challenges ahead, but the commitment to the zero waste certification is a step in the right direction!”

Rosa García, General Director of Rezero said: “At Rezero we are happy that a city like Barcelona is moving towards Zero Waste. It is an important challenge and we will help in everything necessary to achieve the European certification. We also encourage other towns and cities to apply, as Barcelona has done today”.  

Munich, the third most populous city in Germany by number of inhabitants, (1,6 million), is another important European municipality that has signed for the zero waste commitment. In July, its City Council a concept in which around 100 city-wide measures are defined to reduce Munich’s waste volume and conserve resources. This concept is now starting to be implemented by the waste management company Munich (AWM). To align with the required criteria of becoming a Zero Waste Candidate City, the City of Munich commits to the following:

  • Waste from households per capita per year in the state capital Munich will be reduced by 15 % to 310 kg / (E*a) by 2035.
  • The amount of residual waste will be reduced by 35 % to 127 kg / capita by 2035. In the long-term, the City of Munich will achieve an average residual waste volume of less than 100 kg per capita per year.
  • In the long-term, Munich is working towards the goal of reducing municipal solid waste (MSW) in landfills and waste incineration to a waste-management feasible minimum.

Dieter Reiter, Mayor of Munich said: “Munich is continuing on the path towards zero waste, which I initiated at the end of 2019. I believe it is very important that we, the City of Munich, benefit from others’ experiences as part of a European zero waste network, but also inspire other cities. By signing the Zero Waste Commitment today, we are underscoring our commitment to becoming a city that produces as little waste as possible and conserves resources. Munich is taking on a pioneering role – against wasting resources and for the environment.”
 
Kristina Frank, Municipal Officer in charge of city waste management added: “Today we are one more step towards the finish line. With our commitment, we are part of a European network that shares a common vision: As little waste as possible, no waste of resources. In the coming week, AWM will propose to the city council to establish a cross-departmental zero-waste office to run purposefully  in the direction of our ambitious goals. For this, we would like to thank all our employees, who have developed a great concept in record time.”
 
Kaisa Karjalainen, Mission Zero Academy Manager stated: “With big cities come big impacts and therefore, it is great to have Munich joining our Zero Waste Cities Certification system. We look forward to working with the city to help them optimise their already existing systems and achieve great results. I’m sure Munich will be a great inspiration to other large European cities and a role model that zero waste is also possible in big cities.”

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UN’s highest environmental honour celebrates ecosystem restoration

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The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today announced its 2022 Champions of the Earth, honouring a conservationist, an enterprise, an economist, a women’s rights activist, and a wildlife biologist for their transformative action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation.

Since its inception in 2005, the annual Champions of the Earth award has been awarded to trailblazers at the forefront of efforts to protect our natural world. It is the UN’s highest environmental honour. To date, the award has recognized 111 laureates: 26 world leaders, 69 individuals and 16 organizations. This year a record 2,200 nominations from around the world were received.

“Healthy, functional ecosystems are critical to preventing the climate emergency and loss of biodiversity from causing irreversible damage to our planet. This year’s Champions of the Earth give us hope that our relationship with nature can be repaired,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “This year’s Champions demonstrate how reviving ecosystems and supporting nature’s remarkable capacity for regeneration is everyone’s job: governments, the private sector, scientists, communities, NGOs and individuals.”

UNEP’s 2022 Champions of the Earth are:

Arcenciel (Lebanon), honoured in the Inspiration and Action category, is a leading environmental enterprise whose work to create a cleaner, healthier environment has laid the foundation for the country’s national waste management strategy. Today, arcenciel recycles more than 80 per cent of Lebanon’s potentially infectious hospital waste every year.

Constantino (Tino) Aucca Chutas(Peru), also honoured in the Inspiration and Action category, has pioneered a community reforestation model driven by local and Indigenous communities, which has led to three million trees being planted in the country. He is also leading ambitious reforestation efforts in other Andean countries.

Sir Partha Dasgupta (United Kingdom), honoured in the Science and Innovation category, is an eminent economist whose landmark review on the economics of biodiversity calls for a fundamental rethink of humanity’s relationship with the natural world to prevent critical ecosystems from reaching dangerous tipping points.

Dr Purnima Devi Barman (India), honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category, is a wildlife biologist who leads the “Hargila Army”, an all-female grassroots conservation movement dedicated to protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork from extinction. The women create and sell textiles with motifs of the bird, helping to raise awareness about the species while building their own financial independence.

Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet (Cameroon), honoured in the Inspiration and Actioncategory, is a tireless advocate for the rights of women in Africa to secure land tenure, which is essential if they are to play a role in restoring ecosystems, fighting poverty and mitigating climate change. She is also leading efforts to influence policy on gender equality in forest management across 20 African countries.

Following the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), this year’s awards shine a spotlight on efforts to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation globally.

Ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean face massive threats. Every year, the planet loses forest cover equivalent to the size of Portugal. Oceans are being overfished and polluted, with 11 million tonnes of plastic alone ending up in marine environments annually. One million species are at risk of extinction as their habitats disappear or become polluted.

Ecosystem restoration is essential for keeping global warming below 2°C and helping societies and economies to adapt to climate change. It is also crucial to fighting hunger: restoration through agroforestry alone has the potential to increase food security for 1.3 billion people. Restoring just 15 per cent of converted lands could reduce the risk of species extinction by 60 per cent. Ecosystem restoration will only succeed if everyone joins the #GenerationRestoration movement.

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