According to the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[1] approved on February 27, 2022, to evaluate the risks of climate change caused by human activities; increasing heatwaves, droughts, and floods have already exceeded the tolerance limits of plants and animals, causing mass death to species such as trees and corals, as well as causing millions of people in Africa, Asia, Central, and South America, the Lesser Islands and the Arctic to suffer acute food and leaves water insecurity. The impact of climate change on human life has also been revealed by the World Health Organization (“WHO”), another organization of the United Nations. According to the WHO, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.[2]

The United Nations has been discussing the environment as a global issue for a long time. During this period, international binding agreements were signed, including the Paris Climate Agreement, which was approved by Türkiye on October 7, 2021, aimed at protecting biological diversity and limiting the effects of global warming. In addition to these binding agreements, the United Nations recognized the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948[3], and the right to clean water and sanitation as a human right with the resolution[4] 64/292 of the United Nations General Assembly dated 2010.

On July 28, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (“General Assembly”) recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. Maritza Chan Valverde (Costa Rica) speaking on behalf of the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland presented the draft resolution titled “human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”, originally prepared by the aforementioned countries at the General Assembly (“draft resolution”). “The world is facing an unprecedented triple environmental crisis, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. As such, the universal recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment provides a powerful and effective response that could catalyse transformative changes in societies. The resolution will contribute to enhancing and integrating the United Nations response to the triple environmental crisis, as well as supporting the Member States more coherently and effectively in fulfilling their human rights obligations on environmental matters, and scaling up efforts to guarantee a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.” she stated.

After Maritza Chan Valverde presented it, the draft resolution was submitted to the voting of the member states. Representatives of Belarus, Russia, and Iran abstained from voting on the draft resolution, stating that the basis of their concerns is the recognition of a human right that is not fully defined in international human rights treaties and that the recognition of a human right should be through international agreements. Along with Belarus, Russia and Iran; Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, and Syria abstained on different grounds. With a total of 8 abstentions and 161 favourable countries, the General Assembly recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, and adopted the resolution calling for greater global efforts to ensure that this principle is preserved.

Affirming that promoting the right requires the full implementation of the multilateral environmental agreements, the 193 member bodies called upon the states, international organizations, business enterprises, and other relevant stakeholders to adopt policies, enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.

Reflections on Businesses

The General Assembly Decision, which invites commercial enterprises and other relevant stakeholders to take responsibility, is closely related to the ESG criteria, in which environmental, social, and governance factors are taken into account. The environmental component of ESG ponders how sensitive a company is to environmental issues such as climate change, energy emissions, waste management and pollution, resource depletion, etc. in its decision-making process. The social component describes the company's relationship with its stakeholders. It covers human-related factors including the protection of human rights subjects in the operation of the companies, such as the prevention of modern slavery and child labour, ensuring corporate security, employee relations, consumer relations, diversity, supply chain sustainability, psychological safety, and protection of personal data. the corporate governance component of ESG engages in how a company is run by the management on the subjects like executive pay and compensation, stakeholders' rights, separation of power, transparency, etc.

ESG criteria have a big role in investors’ decisions apart from the financial factors that have an impact on the performance of companies. They demand more information and transparency in how the company creates added value. According to the research of Morgan Stanley, 80% of individual investors consider ESG criteria as a supporting function to have higher profit rates and better decisions for long-term investments.[5] Investors are integrating environmental, social, and governance indicators into investment decisions every day as well as operational and financial data. While deciding between companies with similar financial and operational performance, they prefer the one with higher sustainability performance for long-term success. Such effects directly related to sustainability like lower capital costs and higher profit margins, higher valuation multipliers, positive correlations between share prices and good sustainability practices, and access to long-term finance are observed in companies with better ESG performance compared to other companies.[6]

Environmental, social, and corporate governance factors address topics whose financial implications have been neglected for many years such as climate change, conflict, corruption, etc.[7] That’s why ESG standards are important in terms of making the companies sustainable in the long run in the increasingly complex business world and whereas it is also possible to attract the attention of investors by achieving financial success through the application of these standards. These can sometimes be an obligation to comply with legal regulations, and sometimes the voluntary compliance of companies within this scope of ESG criteria plays a key role in achieving financial success and avoiding possible reputational risks.

Within the scope of the responsibilities of companies to protect human rights, avoid human rights violations while operating their activities, and stop activities that cause human rights, the United Nations' recognition of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right is a part of an effort to develop ESG strategies without waiting for the regulation process. At the same time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights considers the principles of the human rights due diligence process to be a responsibility to companies of all sectors, types, and sizes, to respect human rights, and not to engage in activities that may violate human rights, and to eliminate human rights violations in the areas they are related to. The published Business and Human Rights Guiding Principles[8] (“Guidelines”) can guide companies in this regard.

Conclusion

Recognition of a clean, healthy, sustainable environment as a human right should be considered another big step towards putting the ESG criteria at the centre of global goals. In today's world, where environmental, social and governance factors besides financial factors are also effective in order for companies to achieve sustainable success, in the long run, companies should change their policies within the scope of corporate responsibility and without waiting for the regulatory regulations of the states, as the United Nations recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. Thus, companies will be able to avoid possible reputational risks, ensure long-term financial stability and attract the attention of investors within the scope of ESG.