You have the right to a healthy environment, UBC prof to say at UN

Dr. David Boyd, associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at UBC, will be presenting a report on the human right to a healthy environment to the UN General Assembly this month.

As the current UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Boyd is responsible for examining and promoting human rights within the framework of environmental policymaking at the UN. His report argues that living in a healthy environment is a human right.

According to Boyd, many of the challenges humanity is facing, from the climate emergency to the COVID-19 pandemic, “all have their roots in our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world.”

“Everything from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, all of these things rest on the foundation of healthy ecosystems,” said Boyd. Scientific evidence almost conclusively shows that human activity, such as fossil fuel burning and animal agriculture, is quickly eroding these foundations. Yet governments worldwide are missing the targets scientists say are necessary to address these global environmental challenges.

While the UN currently has international agreements in place with the intent of addressing environmental challenges, including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement, these treaties do not include any enforcement mechanisms.

However, constituting an issue as a human right has been a powerful tool for achieving transformational change throughout history.

“In the face of this global environmental crisis, I think that the right to a healthy environment really has similar transformative potential,” Boyd said.

Boyd has two main goals for his presentation: first, to highlight the connection between human rights and a healthy ecosystem, and second, to push the UN to recognize the right to a healthy environment as soon as possible.

Boyd explained that the right to a healthy environment has both substantive and procedural elements. The substantive side means that people have the right to live in a non-toxic environment, with clean air and water, healthy food and healthy ecosystems.

The procedural aspect ensures tools that are used to achieve these environmental goals. These tools include access to information, the ability to contribute to the decision-making that impacts your environment and access to justice if your rights are being threatened or violated.

Boyd also emphasized that the people who bear the brunt of the effects of the climate crisis and environmental degradation are poor, marginalized and vulnerable populations across the world. Protecting those who live with toxic air quality and without access to clean water or food is part of why Boyd believes establishing this right is so important.

“When I talk about the right to a healthy environment, I really think that it’s a tool that can be used, that can be of greatest benefit to people in greatest need,” said Boyd.

Boyd helped to launch a global campaign on the right to a healthy planet with BirdLife International earlier this year. He holds being the special rapporteur for the UN as the most exciting, and the most challenging, work he has ever done.

Boyd also acknowledged that young people, including UBC students, have a direct interest in governments taking stronger action to protect the environment. We saw that last year when millions of people marched for climate action.

“Working as a special rapporteur, there’s a dark side and a light side,” said Boyd. “I’m exposed on a daily basis to the horrific problems that people are facing because of environmental degradation, but on the flip side I get to meet so many inspiring people who are working to try and turn things around.”