UN General Assembly Approves Resolution Recognizing Right to Healthy Environment
UN General Assembly resolution recognizes human right to a healthy environment.

UNGA decision comes on the heels of an about-face by coal-promoting US Senator Joe Manchin, to support the inclusion of a climate mitigation package as part of President Joe Biden’s flagship domestic spending package, potentially enabling its passage after months of deadlock.

As regions as diverse as Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas scorched under record July temperatures, the UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a landmark resolution recognizing the human right to a “clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” as an indelible part of broader human rights guaranteed by the global governance body.

The historic resolution was five decades in the making said the UN Environment Programme, that described it as a “victory for people and the planet.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it “an important tool for accountability and climate justice.”

Until now, legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment in binding UN treaties and Conventions is patchy and vague. The General Assembly resolution sets the stage for more explicit recognition of this right in existing and future UN legal instruments – including new climate measures negotiated at the COP 27 UN Climate Conference in November.

Climate mitigation advocates face an uphill battle to win approval at the Conference of Parties, due to be held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for more ambitious climate commitments that would  keep average temperature rise under 1.5 C during this century.  Under existing national commitments made last year at COP26 in Glasgow, the world remains on a trajectory to well exceed that target.

UN Vote comes hours after key US Senator withdraws opposite to US climate bill

Sun obscured by heavy smoke during last summer’s forest fire season in the United States.

Hours before the UN General Assembly vote, news of a dramatic turnabout in Washington DC by coal-promoting West Virginia Senator Joel Manchin, to support a raft of new US tax credits and incentives promoting green tech and renewable energy. His sudden turnabout,  raised hopes among climate advocates that the United States could indeed assume a stronger leadership role in the global drive to sharpen climate commitments – which fail woefully short of what is needed to keep average temperature rise below 1.5 C in this century.

After weeks in which record US temperatures, wildfires and in other places, violent floods have vividly underscored that the climate crisis is real, Manchin said that he would support a massive US domestic tax and spending bill that includes $369 billion in credits and financial incentives for clean energy and climate mitigation –  as long as the package “invests in the technologies needed for all fuel types – from hydrogen, nuclear, renewables, fossil fuels and energy storage” and “does not arbitrarily shut off our abundant fossil fuels”.

The domestic spending package includes tax incentives and finance for renewable energy projects, climate friendly agriculture and other green-tech, and pollution reduction, as well as a $7,500 tax break on new electric vehicles. That includes $30 billion in production tax credits for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and processing of minerals input; $10 billion for clean industrial tech, , according to the New York Times and other media reports.

And the bill would include $60 billion to clean up pollution hotspots in low-income communities; $27 billion for a “green bank” aimed at delivering financial support to clean energy projects; $20 billion to cut agriculture emissions. sector; and a methane fee on leaks from oil and gas facilities.

UN General Assembly delivered a “victory for people and planet”

Meanwhile, the UN Environment Programme’s Inger Andersen celebrated the passage of the UN General Assembly Resolution as a “victory for the planet and people.”

In a press statement, she noted that billions of people are suffering “under the weight of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste,” and the UN move ” will help people stand up for their right to a safe climate, their right to breathe clean air and their rights to access clean and safe water, adequate food, healthy ecosystems and nontoxic environments.”

But now we must build on this victory and implement the right, because the triple planetary crisis is a huge threat to present and future generations. If nations implement this right fully, it will change so much – by empowering action on the triple planetary crisis, providing a more predictable and consistent global regulatory environment for businesses, and protecting those who defend nature.

“The resolution has the potential to be a turning point for humanity, improving the life and enjoyment of human rights of billions of individuals as well as the health of our extraordinary planet,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David R. Boyd in another statement.

“The health and quality of life of everyone directly depend on clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, sustainably produced food to eat, non-toxic environments, a safe climate, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems,” the UN expert said. “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as recognised universally today, includes all of those substantial elements.”

Draft US legislation also moves to lower prescription drug costs

The new US tax and spending bill also includes a landmark initiative to lower the cost of healthcare and particularly of prescription drugs in the US – where costs of the same medications are often far higher than those in Canada or other developed countries, including the European Union.

To lower costs, the draft US legislation would empower Medicare for the first time ever to directly negotiate with pharma providers over the price of prescription drugs that it procures, beginning in 2023. It would also cap out-of-pocket costs for older people drawing Medicare at $2000 a year, provide free vaccines to seniors – and expand subsidies and provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which aims to provide access to health insurance to all Americans.

The plan would raise an estimated $313 billion by closing tax loopholes used by some of the largest US corporations to reduce their tax rates below the US 21 percent corporate income tax rate.  And the plan would raise another $14 billion by reducing preferential tax treatment of venture capitalists and private equity firms.

Image Credits: Todd Petit.

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