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What is the Human Right to a Healthy Environment?

A huge win for humanity arrived on July 28, 2022. In a historic decision, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Only eight nations abstained. Zero opposed.

FOUNDATIONAL TO HUMAN WELL-BEING AND BUSINESS PERFORMANCE

A healthy environment is not a “nice to have” — it is foundational to human well-being, thriving societies and long-term business performance. And our environment is increasingly at risk from climate impacts, deforestation, pollution and resource depletion — primarily driven by unsustainable, and at times exploitative, practices.

The UN vote elevates a common standard of achievement for governments — for mobilizing resources and climate action; strengthening accountability; and catalyzing protection of natural capital, which enables business to thrive. Recognition also underscores the foundational role of respect for rights in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement.

Governments, communities and companies alike have a responsibility to ensure a healthy environment for all. It’s a human imperative. A business imperative. A leadership imperative.

The General Assembly’s vote follows passage of a similar resolution by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2021.

There are no jobs on a dead planet.

– Sharan Burrow, general secretary, International Trade Union Confederation; vice-chair, The B Team

WHY SHOULD A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT MATTER TO BUSINESS LEADERS?

An increasingly fragile interdependence exists between human well-being, economic activity and our natural world.

Business relies on nature at every stage of the value chain. For a start: resources such as food, fiber, minerals and building materials, and ecosystem services, such as crop pollination, water filtration and waste decomposition.

As climate change accelerates and ecosystems further degrade, successful stewardship of business must become synonymous with respect for human rights and responsible stewardship of the natural world.

BUSINESSES TAKING ACTION

Ahead of the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly votes, The B Team catalyzed a global movement of companies calling on the UN to affirm the human right to a healthy environment. These businesses prioritize the link between a healthy environment and healthy workforce, understanding the new right as “an important catalyst to protect our natural capital and create the conditions through which business and communities can thrive sustainably.”

LEADER INSIGHTS

Yolanda Kakabadse,
former president, World Wildlife Fund International

We cannot have a healthy human society on an unhealthy planet.

David Crane,
former CEO, NRG Energy

When you recognize that your company or industry is contributing to rising global temperatures that endanger our children and intensify social injustice, you have a moral imperative to act.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

What are the implications for business? CEOs, C-suite executives and board directors must consider climate and nature action in terms of impact on people. Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate and implement existing international best practices and standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles. This responsibility now extends to the human right to a healthy environment.

WHY SHOULD A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT MATTER TO BUSINESS LEADERS?

An increasingly fragile interdependence exists between human well-being, economic activity and our natural world.

Business relies on nature at every stage of the value chain. For a start: resources such as food, fiber, minerals and building materials, and ecosystem services, such as crop pollination, water filtration and waste decomposition.

As climate change accelerates and ecosystems further degrade, successful stewardship of business must become synonymous with respect for human rights and responsible stewardship of the natural world.

If we are still to create a more sustainable and equitable world for all, we must do it quickly and boldly.

– Guilherme Leal, co-founder & co-chair, Natura &Co

250,000

climate-change related deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 [WHO estimate]

over half

of world GDP is at moderate or severe risk due to nature loss

51+

companies calling for action

CALL TO ACTION

CEOs, C-suite executives and board directors must consider climate and nature action in terms of impact on people.

Businesses should use due diligence as a tool to better understand company impacts on humans and the environment, then apply that knowledge to ensure rights-respecting practices — and use leverage to prompt adoption across the value chain.

Meaningful engagement with affected stakeholders is a critical vehicle for respecting human rights and returning agency to those most vulnerable to environmental harm. The UN Guidance on Business and Human Rights Defenders is a useful tool for ensuring respect of stakeholders, such as rights defenders.

The cost of not acting is actually higher than the cost of acting.

– Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever; co-founder & chair, IMAGINE

If you want to achieve systemic change in the world, business needs to be part of the solution.

– Jochen Zeitz, president, CEO & chair, Harley-Davidson, Inc.; co-founder, The B Team

A call to action to countries to recognize the human right to a healthy environment, featuring US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and The B Team's Mary Robinson and Christiana Figueres

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