The United Nations General Assembly adopted a new resolution affirming that every human has the right to access a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
It also recognises that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the enjoyment of this right - and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.
According to UN news, the final vote tally was 161 in favour of the resolution, with eight countries abstaining from the vote: China, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, and Ethiopia.
The resolution was put forth by member states Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland last summer. They argued that the issue falls under the jurisdiction of existing international laws and the impacts of climate change—land degradation, misuse of natural resources, pollution, chemical waste, and biodiversity—are all at risk, which jeopardizes all human rights in some capacity.
Last year a similar sentiment was put forth by the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental body within the UN concentrated on issues related to the "promotion and protection" of human rights across the world.
However, the concept was first presented at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which declared that people have a fundamental right to "an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being," and thus began a now decades-long fight to make the environment an agenda priority for the international community.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the 'historic' decision and said the landmark development demonstrates that the Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
"The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples", he said in a statement released by his Spokesperson's Office.
He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.
"The international community has given universal recognition to this right and brought us closer to making it a reality for all", he said.
Guterres underscored that however, the adoption of the resolution 'is only the beginning and urged nations to make this newly recognised right 'a reality for everyone, everywhere'.
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also hailed the Assembly's decision and echoed the Secretary-General's call for urgent action to implement it.
"Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now," she said.
Bachelet explained that environmental action based on human rights obligations provides vital guardrails for economic policies and business models.
"It emphasizes the underpinning of legal obligations to act, rather than simply of discretionary policy. It is also more effective, legitimate and sustainable," she added.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, the Assembly's decision will change the very nature of international human rights law.
"Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people's perspective from 'begging' to demanding governments to act", he recently told UN News.
As mentioned by the UN Secretary-General, the newly recognised right will be crucial to tackling the triple planetary crisis.
This refers to the three main interlinked environmental threats that humanity currently faces: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss - all mentioned in the text of the resolution.
Each of these issues has its own causes and effects and they need to be resolved if we are to have a viable future on Earth.
The consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, through increased intensity and severity of droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.
Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, with more than seven million people dying prematurely each year due to pollution.
Finally, the decline or disappearance of biological diversity - which includes animals, plants and ecosystems - impacts food supplies, access to clean water and life as we know it.