Business and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

Anna Triponel

March 1, 2024
Our key takeaway: A UN Special Rapporteur’s report to the UN General Assembly delivers a stark message to companies and policymakers: “Humanity faces a three-pronged fork in the road. The path of business as usual will accelerate environmental catastrophe, worsen inequality, and inflict inhumane suffering on billions of people. The path of incremental change leads to slightly less catastrophic environmental consequences and slightly less extreme inequality, but still results in widespread suffering. The third path, hard to see through the fog of obfuscation spread by businesses, is a future of transformative changes so that everyone lives a fulfilling life in harmony with nature and within planetary limits.” To find the way down the third path, States should be upholding a system wherein companies are held to strong regulatory standards and rigorous enforcement. For their part, companies “must contribute to transformative changes including: reforming supply chains to reduce climate, environmental and human rights impacts; reducing humanity’s overall environmental footprint via decreased material consumption by wealthy nations and individuals; a rapid clean energy transition; scaling up ecosystem conservation and restoration; and shifting to a rights-based circular economy founded on principles of sufficiency, equality and regeneration.”

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published A/HRC/55/43, Business, planetary boundaries, and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (January 2024), the report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, David R. Boyd:

  • The current state of play: The report makes clear the steep precipice we are teetering on, having already exceeded six planetary boundaries (climate change, biodiversity loss, fresh water disturbance, deforestation, excessive fertilizer use, synthetic chemical contamination) and close to exceeding a seventh (ocean acidification). According to the UN Special Rapporteur, the “planetary crisis is the biggest threat to human rights ever faced, because it threatens the rights of everyone alive as well as the rights of future generations” including the rights to life, health, food, water, an adequate standard of living, and development, the rights of the child, cultural rights and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment entails clean air, a safe climate, safe and sufficient water, adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as access to information, public participation and access to justice. And the report pulls no punches when it comes to the contribution of business to the crisis we find ourselves in: “The current economic and business paradigms are based on exploiting people and nature. Among the fundamental flaws of these paradigms are a belief in limitless growth, short-term thinking, a narrow focus on maximizing profits for shareholders, and the externalization of social, health and environmental costs onto society.” What’s more, “[b]usiness as usual clearly is a recipe for climate chaos, millions of premature deaths, forced migration, ecosystem collapse and human rights violations on an unprecedented scale.”
  • Business and the right to a healthy environment: Yet companies also have the responsibility and the ability to help right the ship. The Special Rapporteur points out that embedding “respect for human rights across their value chain, including by using various types of leverage to respond to actual and potential risks” is one of the most significant contributions businesses can make. This includes transparency about the human rights, climate and environmental impacts of their activities. It also includes consultation and engagement with rights holders, “especially vulnerably situated rights holders, who often bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse impacts of environmental degradation,” respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, persons and African descent and and nature-based local communities to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent, and ensuring a zero-tolerance approach to attacks on human rights defenders. In addition, “[a]s businesses face increasing pressure to divest from industries fuelling the planetary crisis (including coal, oil, gas, and mining), they must exit responsibly in order to avoid and to remedy adverse human rights and environmental impacts.” Further, they should ensure access to justice by implementing "operational-level grievance mechanisms capable of providing effective remedies to rights holders whose right to a healthy environment they have adversely impacted.” Companies are not yet meeting this need: “Many businesses have not established grievance mechanisms, and even where they have, failure is more common than accountability because rights holders are not placed at the centre of these processes, where they belong.” And, crucially, business needs to put its money where its mouth is, stopping lobbying efforts against legislation designed to hold companies accountable and ending the use of litigation to “silence debate, to intimidate and distract their critics and to exhaust the limited resources of civil society organizations, communities and environmental human rights defenders.”
  • Systemic and transformative changes are required: Per the Special Rapporteur, “it is clear from the breach of multiple planetary boundaries and the climate, environment and human rights crisis that humanity needs to shrink its collective ecological footprint, yet billions of people in the global South need to expand their material footprint to achieve a comfortable standard of living and full enjoyment of their human rights. Society can no longer bury its head in the sand about this profound paradox.” The report recommends broad strategies that must be implemented by governments and supported by companies. For one, the “conventional goal of unlimited economic growth, measured by GDP, must be replaced by holistic objectives based on sufficiency, sustainability and human rights.” Second, a “new generation of climate and environmental laws and policies is needed to recognize the fact that human activities have breached planetary limits”—guided by the core principles of prevention, precaution, equality and non-discrimination, non-regression and polluter pays, and implemented through rigorous monitoring and enforcement for the private sector. Fiscal reforms are also key: “Taxing environmentally destructive behaviour should be the norm, rather than the exception, and should address all types of air, water, soil and climate pollution and entail comprehensive liability for contaminated sites.” Finally, we need new business paradigms that replace our existing market-driven model, prioritising “reorienting the purpose of businesses in society; changing irresponsible business models; and going beyond doing no harm.”

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