Legal right to a healthy environment

Our environment is in crisis, and the situation is getting worse. To turn things around, we need the next government in Westminster to pass a law recognising the right to a healthy environment as a human right.

14 May 2024

The problem

When we breathe dirty air, eat food grown in toxic soils, spend our time indoors to escape pollution, and swim in water filled with sewage, it impacts our health. And if the environment around us is also in declining health – if trees are being cut down, pollinators are in decline, soils and waters are leached of nutrients and loaded with pollutants – then the risks to people can only increase.

Flooding, heatwaves and storms caused by climate change, along with the destruction of precious nature, are making things even worse. It’s easy to see the disastrous consequences of an unhealthy environment.

Environmental harm is often caused by the actions of big businesses, developers, and even our decision makers. And those who are already disadvantaged or discriminated against are bearing the brunt of this harm. At home and across the world, millions of people on low incomes, disabled people and racialised communities are living in unhealthy environments. Our Planet Over Profit work is campaigning for a new law to stop UK companies causing harm overseas. But we need action across the UK too.

The solution

At Friends of the Earth, we’re campaigning for the UK government to pass a law that recognises the right to a healthy environment as a human right. The Scottish government has already consulted on doing just that through a Human Rights Bill for Scotland. And the government in Westminster has signed up to various internal commitments recognising the right to a healthy environment – but they haven’t put it into law in the UK.  

We want to change that. If there was a legal right to a healthy environment, it could encourage the government and other decision makers to make better choices to protect people and nature – in the same way they have a duty to protect our other human rights.  

If the right to a healthy environment was enshrined in law, it would allow people to defend themselves should they or their local environment be put at risk. For example:

  • families who find themselves in mould and damp filled housing could take their local authority or social housing provider to court
  • residents living near a new planned road which would increase pollution (and worsen health conditions) could launch legal action.

They wouldn’t need to prove that our government missed targets set around a national average or wait until the unhealthy environment leads to a tragic death, as in the cases of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah or Awaab Ishak. Instead, they could focus on the quality and health of their local environment – right here, right now. They could make links between planning policy and enforcement failures, and their own right to a healthy environment.

This would offer a way to secure the enforcement and remedial action that communities need to guarantee homes that provide everyone with a safe and healthy living environment.

What you and your group can do

Right now, we want to tell as many people as we can about the difference a right to a healthy environment could make. We want to make sure that the entire Friends of the Earth network knows about how powerful an Environmental Rights Act could be and offer you ways to get involved. There are some resources and ways to engage below.  

This May, we’ll be launching a spoof video to highlight the issue of water pollution and ask people to sign our record of public support for a new Environmental Rights Act (ERA). Find out how your group can take part.

Later this year, we’ll be speaking to all political parties and working to persuade them to commit to make a healthy environment a human right if they succeed in the next election. We’ll need your help, so watch this space. 

Timeline

2022 – spring 2023: Alongside our previous work on healthy environments, our legal team worked with other organisations to develop a draft law which would help people stand up for their right to a healthy environment.  

Summer 2023: Together with other organisations including RSPB and Client Earth, we launched a proposal for a new legal right to a healthy environment in the House of Lords.  We made this one of our earliest demands for the next government, ahead of the general election. The call for an Environmental Rights Act was also included in the Wildlife and Countryside Link Nature 2030 manifesto (PDF).

Support and resources

Resources