The authors are all professors at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. David Boyd is also the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
The world’s future became a little bit brighter recently. On July 28, for the first time in history, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that everyone, everywhere, has a right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Now it’s time for Canada to step up and take action to ensure that right for all its citizens.
This historic move by the UN establishes obligations that governments must fulfill and empowers people with a set of tools they can use to hold governments accountable. Canada is not just a UN member, it’s a country for which the environment, and human rights, sits high on any political agenda.
Respecting Canadians’ right to a healthy environment means expanding well beyond Canada’s current efforts to protect 25 per cent of its lands and waters in order to safeguard its rich biodiversity of plants and animals.
First, ensuring a healthy environment for Canadians means also choosing to protect areas on land and in the water based not only on whether they contain endangered species or ecosystems, but whether they contribute to people’s lives and well-being.
This can be by helping pollinate our crops, clean our water, mitigate climate change, and maintain clean and beautiful sites where we can live. Because the nature that provides these crucial “ecosystem services” overlaps only partly with the places that are crucial for endangered species and ecosystems, this means going beyond 25 per cent by 2025, and even beyond 30 per cent by 2030.
Second, Canadians need a dramatic new focus on rejuvenating nature in the urban areas where three-quarters of Canadians live.
There’s so much evidence that direct experience of nature is vital for our well-being that physicians are beginning to advocate for prescriptions of time in nature. There’s even research showing enjoyment of nature is tied to identity and belonging for new migrants. To deliver these benefits, nature protection needs to be scaled up throughout cities in a way that makes restorative experiences in nature accessible to all.
Third, we need to greatly decrease the environmental footprint of our food systems, which are major contributors to the climate crisis and emerging zoonotic diseases.
Ensuring the right to a healthy environment in Canada could trigger changes that lead to sustainable farming. For example, farm management practices including reduced tillage, increased crop rotations and adding cover crops are considered “climate smart,” and could sequester more carbon in agricultural soils, reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and limit nutrient losses that cause water pollution.
Methane emissions from livestock could be reduced through shifting animal feeding strategies. Overfished species could be enabled to recover through reduced catches and increased habitat protection.
Respecting Canadians’ right to a healthy environment also means controlling known pollution sources, cleaning up historical pollution and pro-actively planning to address emerging threats.
For example, in Canada, air pollution is estimated to contribute to more than 15,000 premature deaths a year. This air pollution is also not distributed evenly, with marginalized communities often bearing larger burdens. For example, Sarnia, Ont., remains notorious as a pollution hotspot that has disturbing health effects on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is located in close proximity to more than 40 large petrochemical facilities.
Pollution can also have lasting impact even after sources are removed, and historical contamination of soils and water may require dedicated government resources for monitoring, clean-up and support for affected communities. There are opportunities to prevent these negative and inequitable effects through improved monitoring, developing enforceable ambient air quality standards, engaging with impacted communities and their lived experiences, and addressing environmental racism through law.
Finally, Canada needs to accelerate the pace of climate action, switching to 100 per cent renewable electricity as quickly as possible and transforming transportation with zero-carbon solutions.
Per capita, Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world. We must acknowledge our outsized contribution to a crisis that is ravaging human rights in climate-vulnerable countries by ramping up financial and technological assistance to these nations.
The good news is that a bill before Parliament (S-5) will recognize that all Canadians have the right to a healthy environment and require the government to come up with a strategy to implement it.
We won’t be alone: Some countries have already used the right to a healthy environment to spark substantial improvements. Costa Rica added this right to its constitution in 1994, catalyzing a reversal of deforestation, a focus on renewable electricity, and a host of nature friendly laws and policies. France recognized the right in 2005 and then became the first country in the world to ban fracking for oil and gas.
In a world that too often emphasizes the differences between people, the right to a healthy environment reflects a fundamental truth that should unite us all: Everyone’s health and quality of life depends on clean air, safe water, sustainably produced food, a stable climate and healthy ecosystems.
We are all extraordinarily fortunate to live on this miraculous blue-green planet, but time is running short. We must use the right to a healthy environment to ensure Canadian governments, businesses and people act now to do a better job of taking care of the home that we all share.
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