On 28 July 2022, 161 States voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly (“UNGA“) resolution declaring access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a universal human right (“UNGA Resolution“). In a remarkable display of global solidarity, the resolution received zero ‘against’ votes, and eight ‘abstain’ votes. This vote follows the passing of a similar resolution in the United National Human Rights Council in October 2021. UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, hailed the UNGA Resolution as having the potential “to be a turning point for humanity”.

The UNGA Resolution is not legally binding on States. However, it represents strong, international political commitment and is expected to galvanize States and other organizations to increase their efforts and commitment in tackling environmental and sustainability issues. Boyd has urged States to incorporate the new universal human right into their constitutions or other domestic legislation, similar to the positive changes in laws and policies around the world when the UNGA recognised the right to water and sanitation in 2010. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, further notes that environmental action based on human rights obligations strengthens the legitimacy and underpinnings of existing legal obligations to act to protect the environment and biodiversity.

In an earlier post, we highlighted 2022 global trends in climate litigation, including a marked increase in the number of climate-related cases brought against private sector actors between 2015 and 2021. The recognition of a universal, human right to access a clean, healthy and sustainable environment brings a new dimension to climate litigation, and is likely to further increase the litigation risk for Governments and the private sector. The impact of the UNGA Resolution on each jurisdiction’s laws would have to be examined individually. Nonetheless, the recognition of the new right means it is now difficult to refute the link between environmental concerns and human rights – an approach that is reflected in the EU’s draft corporate sustainability due diligence directive (the “Draft Directive“) (for more information on the Draft Directive, please read our earlier blog posts here and here). The transposition of the new universal, human right into domestic and regional legislation may also strengthen or provide the basis and standing for litigants to pursue climate justice related claims where these were not previously available.