Why is it important to talk about human rights and the environment?

Human life is directly dependent on the environment. Natural resources sustain life on the planet, their use has enabled humankind to achieve high economic and technological progress, to make life easier and more secure.

However, environmental degradation and the fast pace of climate change in recent decades have had a direct negative impact on people’s lives. Climate and environmental change put at risk the enjoyment of some of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in other international human rights instruments. The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies the environment as one of the main factors influencing health and estimates that 20% of deaths in the European region are caused by the state of the environment. The deteriorating climatic and environmental conditions thus put at risk our right to life, as enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as our right to achieve ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’, as enshrined in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Екип от специалисти, които са мотивирани да развиват темата за бизнеса и правата на човека в България

Environmental protection in the human rights context

On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing that “clean, healthy and sustainable environment” is a human right. The resolution states that the right to a clean environment is linked to all other human rights enshrined in international law. The UN General Assembly calls on States, international organizations and businesses to develop and implement policies, undertake capacity building and increase cooperation in order to “scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.”

How do businesses affect the environment and human rights?

The business sector is in constant interaction with the environment. It both depends on it and influences its condition. Businesses use natural resources such as soils, fuels, metals, water, timber, etc. to run their activities and create financial value. Thanks to the activities of businesses, the economy grows, jobs are created and people’s living standards improve. However, it is also necessary to take into account that economic activity has a significant impact on the environment and is one of the main factors contributing to the deepening environmental crisis.

Climate change is largely due to the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous dioxide and others. Economic activity is one of the main causes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and contributes greatly to the increase in emissions of other greenhouse gases. One particular negative effect is air pollution, which is a leading cause of many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and a number of chronic respiratory diseases.

Another example is the deforestation of large natural areas – a common result of the activities of the logging and the construction industries. Deforestation leads to the formation of landslides, which put the lives of people living in the affected areas at risk, i.e. the right to life established in international law is threatened. Deforestation can also lead to the destruction of habitable buildings and is also a major cause of the progressive reduction in arable land and leads to difficulties in food production. This is an example of a threat to everyone’s right to food and housing as recognised in Article 25 UDHR.

The extractive industries also have a serious negative impact on the environment as they contribute significantly to water, soil and air pollution. One example is the extraction of the metal lithium, common in Bolivia, Chile, China and some African countries, which is used to produce batteries and electronic devices. Heavy chemicals are used to extract lithium and the process irreversibly destroys soils and pollutes waters. This affects the lives of the local population by hindering food production and reducing access to clean drinking water.

Many companies are already taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint on the climate and the environment. In order to reach their targets (Net Zero), companies need to collaborate with the state and various stakeholders (NGOs, trade unions, etc.). For their part, governments must take legislative measures to facilitate the transition to sustainable economies and make sure that no one is left behind.