Why it’s our moral duty to protect the environment

The failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation comes in second place both for the list of most likely risks and impact, reflecting people’s increasing concerns about environmental policy failure.

At the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting it was highlighted that extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, are most likely to increase over the years to come.

Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe. Environmental concerns account for various risks, which have adverse effects on our way of living.

The year 2018 saw unprecedented heatwaves, drought, storms and floods across the globe as greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow while concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was maintained at alarming levels.

The failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation comes in second place both for the list of most likely risks and impact, reflecting people’s increasing concerns about environmental policy failure.

The results of climate inaction are increasingly becoming clear. The accelerating pace of biodiversity loss is a particular concern.

Of late, the global community has amplified its alertness on the relationship between environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

Given the disastrous environmental incidents happening everywhere around the world that affect earth’s dwellers, it calls for everyone to treat environment as a moral concern that necessitates a moral duty to protect it.

Of course, the duty to care about environment springs from the perspective of international environmental norm. This makes it a question of fundamental importance.

Under international norm, every person has the right to live in an ecologically sound environment adequate for their health, well-being, dignity, culture and fulfilment.

Therefore, it is incumbent on everyone to promote, preserve and protect environment against any kind of degradation. Beyond individual responsibility, the governments and international institutions bear the supreme obligation to take care of the environment.

To this end, everyone ought to contribute at their own levels to the conservation, protection and restoration of the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.

There are several building blocks in place for a right and a duty to environmental protection under the law. The Rwandan Constitution stipulates that ‘everyone has the right to live in a clean and healthy environment’.

In addition to incorporating the fundamental environmental rights, the Constitution places a duty on relevant State authorities to care for the environment. The right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment as a human right in itself, but entails the duty to protection.

Accordingly, existing environmental laws set out that everyone must contribute to living in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being. It combines this right with the duty to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. Moreover, the duty to care for the environment not only is put on the state, but also bears upon individuals.

A direct effect of the right to an ecologically sound environment would be difficult to establish unless everyone understands its importance. This must be translated into action that results into the realisation of healthy and clean environment.

Spontaneously, there’re two dimensions where the right and the duty could become effective. The first dimension lies in safeguarding the core conditions of an ecologically sound environment. In this regard, once the idea of a core is established, it could be extended beyond the human centric focus of the human rights to other essential objectives of environmental protection.

The practical effect of such core would be a limit to the discretion of the States with respect to the implementation of the right and the duty. Therefore, plaintiffs could demand in court that the core elements of an ecologically sound environment be respected.

The second dimension would be the strengthening and underpinning institutional frameworks to be more effective with regard to the implementation of existing environmental laws.

As articulated above, the right to an ecologically sound environment and the duty to take care of the environment would provide added value to the environmental protection. Moreover, the right and the duty would not introduce radical change.

Therefore, sustainable development can only be achieved when all stakeholders synergise their efforts to this vitally important cause. Governments and organisations must work together to address the impact of specific threats to the common heritage of mankind [environment].

Environment is a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of human rights. That said, human rights obligations of States should include the duty to ensure the level of environmental protection necessary to allow the full exercise of protected rights.

 It’s crucially important to identify and promote good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy making, especially in the areas of environmental protection and management.

The gratification of all human rights is intimately connected to the environmental issue. Not only rights to life and health but also other social, economic, cultural, as well as political and civil rights, can be fully enjoyed only in a sound environment.

The writer is a law expert

The views expressed in this article are of the author.