Environmental protection as a prerequisite for respect for fundamental rights (information report – SDO)

Information report: Environmental protection as a prerequisite for respect for fundamental rights (information report – SDO)

Key points

  • The effects of climate change and environmental degradation are having a direct and indirect impact on a range of fundamental rights guaranteed at international and European level, such as the right to life, the right to health, the right to education and the right to respect for private and family life.
  • The interconnectivity between fundamental rights, environmental degradation and climate change is clearly set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which the European Union (EU) has committed itself in the context of Agenda 2030.
  • We are also observing the emergence of a new human right – the right to a healthy, safe and sustainable environment. This right has been recognised by all 27 Member States. Fourteen recognise the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, while four do so through case law interpreting constitutional provisions that protect rights to health, or on general environmental protection, or via ratification of the Aarhus Convention.
  • A safe climate is a substantial element of the right to a healthy environment. We are observing, with the growing fusion between the legal obligations in the Paris Agreement and the human rights framework, the emergence of a new right to a safe climate.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) considers air pollution to be a major environmental risk to human health. Likewise, the European Environment Agency (EEA) regards air pollution as the biggest environmental health risk in Europe. It also entails considerable economic costs by leading to increased medical expenses, reduced productivity, for example through lost working days, and reduced agricultural yields.
  • According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) 1.2 billion jobs (40% of world jobs) depend on a healthy environment. Heat stress will reduce working hours in the world by 2% in 2030, representing 72 million jobs. Pollution and environmental degradation will impact workers' productivity, health, incomes and food security. Policies based on principles will be necessary to ensure respect for economic and social rights, in collaboration with employers' and workers' representative organisations.
  • The EU must establish itself as a reliable partner on the international stage by strengthening and implementing legislation incorporating a comprehensive, human-rights-based approach to climate and environmental action, so as to guide climate change mitigation policies and measures while protecting the rights of all. Especially, the EU has to be consistent and pay more attention to trade agreements.
  • Just as there is an urgent need to decarbonise the economy, there is an urgent need to detoxify it. EU chemicals regulation is not currently framed as a human rights measure: the CSS mentions human rights only in passing, and the legislation does not refer to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Voluntary measures on human rights, and social and environmental due diligence have so far failed to shift the way companies manage and prevent adverse environmental and human rights impacts throughout supply chains. To ensure that the Sustainable Corporate Governance Directive becomes a key component of the success of the European Green Deal, we recommend, in particular a definition of adverse environmental impacts that contains references to normative environmental standards, as well as an indicative list of environmental matters that should be considered when conducting due diligence, a broad scope of companies and coverage of the whole value chain.
  • The EESC calls on the European Commission to urgently put forward a proposal for EU rules that protect journalists, activists, NGOs, rights defenders, whistle-blowers and other public watchdogs who speak up in the public interest from abusive legal actions launched by powerful individuals and companies. It is especially important in the environmental context, where civil society often stands up for the environment against investors and policymakers. An EU anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law would provide for a strong and uniform level of protection against SLAPPs in all EU Member States and serve as a model for countries in wider Europe and beyond.