The ACT has become the first jurisdiction in the country to consult on whether the right to a healthy environment is a human right – a move warmly welcomed by legal and environmental advocates.
Conservation Council Executive Director Helen Oakey said the purpose of the right is to ensure everyone can access clean air, clean water, healthy food and nature.
“It’s also about ensuring people are protected from the impacts of climate change,” she said.
Ms Oakey said it’s understandable to think that’s not a right that would need to be enshrined in the law “as long as governments are doing the right thing”, but that it’s also an acknowledgement of how intertwined people are with their environment.
“This adds a different way of ensuring protection with regards to the environment,” she said.
A tangible way of thinking about it might be putting building standards in place to ensure adequate protection from smoke in bushfires or ensuring there is adequate tree cover allowing for shade and cooling, Ms Oakey said.
“Going forwards, as governments prepare and plan new suburbs, these could be issues it’s important for them to be cognisant of,” she said.
Currently, every piece of legislation passed in the ACT has to be compatible with the Humans Right Act. If the right to a healthy environment was included in the legislation, it would mean the environment would have to be considered, too.
GreenLaw research advocate Peta Bulling said it’s not just about enshrining the right to a healthy environment in legislation, but actually about changing and improving the lives of Canberrans.
“On a practical scale that could mean community batteries being rolled out by the government or the phase-out of gas happening more quickly,” she explained.
The United Nations passed a resolution at the end of 2021 on the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment although no Australian jurisdiction has yet implemented this in their human rights legislation.
Many UN member states already recognise this right, including the United Kingdom, France, the Philippines and Colombia.
ACT Greens MLA Jo Clay, who introduced the motion to the Legislative Assembly last week, said the right to a healthy environment is a simple right applicable to every Canberran.
“Our natural environment is everything. It’s our air, our water, our soils, our bio-diversity and our climate,” she said.
“An unhealthy environment means unhealthy Canberrans and at its worse, it means dead Canberrans.”
Ms Clay told the Assembly an example of the latter was the Black Summer bushfires.
The right to a healthy environment was one of the Greens’ 2020 election promises and included in the Labor-Greens governing agreement. The Canberra Liberals also backed the motion but questioned why it was needed at all given its contents were already enshrined in the governing agreement.
The Justice and Community Safety Directorate will lead consultation and report back to the Legislative Assembly on how the right to a healthy environment could be included in the current human rights law by the end of this year’s sitting calendar.