We must stand up for our environment and our health

Everyone deserves to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. There is cause for hope, but we must make sure the right to a healthy environment is real and powerful in Scotland, says Benjamin Brown, Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland.

For me, human rights are the building blocks to live a dignified life and reach our full potential.

And as we approach Human Rights Day, despite the rollback of fundamental human rights by authoritarian governments across the globe, I believe we can find cause for celebration in the first new universal human right adopted in seventy years: The right to a healthy environment.

On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly declared access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right, observing that environmental damage has negative implications for the effective enjoyment of all human rights, for present and future generations.

This is the first new universal human right adopted in seventy years, and a vital step forward in efforts to tackle the triple planetary emergency of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the pollution of our air, land, rivers and seas.

The Scottish Government is now preparing to enshrine these rights in its new Human Rights Bill, which will be consulted in 2023.

The commitment to include the right to a healthy environment within the Bill is welcome, but our task now is to ensure such rights are well defined and enforceable against public bodies and polluters.

Making human rights matter

We all deserve to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Yet across Scotland, communities are exposed to air, land and water pollution, flooding due to climate change, and a rapid decline in biodiversity.

People living in areas of highest disadvantage are the worst affected by environmental problems and also have the least access to healthy, biodiverse green spaces. Children, older people, disabled people and people with health conditions are hardest hit.

For too long, polluters have (as the saying goes) been getting away Scot-free. It is incredibly difficult to use our legal system to stand up for the environment and our health. It is complicated, expensive and intimidating.

This Human Rights Day, progress towards the realisation of the right to a healthy environment gives us cause for hope, but greater recognition of our environmental rights must translate into real and lasting change. At a time when we are exceeding our planetary limits, the need for an enforceable human right to a healthy environment, and a court system which enables all of us to stand up for and protect the environment, is more pressing than ever.

How you can get involved

The Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) has launched a petition calling for the incorporation of the human right to a healthy environment into Scots law, the reform of legal expenses, and the establishment of a new environmental court.

The petition stresses the right to a healthy environment must guarantee the highest standards for clean air; a safe climate; access to safe water and adequate sanitation; healthy and sustainably produced food; non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play; and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.

These are the six features identified by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council.

The petition also calls for reforming legal expenses so it is affordable for all of us to uphold environmental laws in court.

Having affordable access to the courts is already required by the international treaty called the Aarhus Convention. But Scotland’s legal system is in breach of the Convention. This is because the costs of taking legal action to protect the environment in Scotland are unaffordable. They can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, which prevents individuals, groups and organisations from pursuing action.

Finally, the petition calls for the creation of a specialist environmental court which is affordable and accessible for everyone, fair, timely and effective. The support for environmental courts has grown rapidly with nearly 1500 environmental courts worldwide. The hearing of environmental cases in one place would allow judges to develop experience in interpreting environmental law, supported by technical experts.

To show your support for stronger environmental rights in Scotland: