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The European Social Charter, the human rights treaty on social and economic rights, guarantees the right to a healthy environment as part of the right to protection of health (Article 11). It entails firstly respect of the precautionary principle, i.e. when a preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern regarding potentially dangerous effects on human health, the State must take precautionary measures consistent with the high level of protection provided for in Article 11 of the Charter, to prevent those potentially dangerous effects.

Under the Charter overcoming pollution is an objective that can only be achieved gradually. Nevertheless, States Parties must strive to attain this objective within a reasonable time, by showing measurable progress and making best possible use of the resources at their disposal. The measures taken by States Parties are assessed with reference to their national legislation and regulations and undertakings entered into with regard to the European Union and the United Nations and in terms of how the relevant law is applied in practice.

In this respect, States Parties must:

  • develop and regularly update sufficiently comprehensive environmental legislation and regulations;
  • take specific steps, such as modifying equipment, introducing threshold values for emissions and measuring air quality, to prevent air pollution at local level and to help to reduce it on a global scale;
  • ensure that environmental standards and rules are properly applied, through appropriate supervisory machinery, effective and efficient, that is comprising measures which have been established to be sufficiently dissuasive and have a direct effect on polluting emission levels.

The European Committee of Social Rights (ESCR) monitors the implementation of the Charter, not only in law, but also in practice. Under Article 11, the Committee examines for example aspects related to air and water pollution as well as risks related to asbestos or nuclear hazards. The ECSR examined the situation and measures taken by States Parties with regard to the right to a healthy environment in its Conclusions 2017 on Article 11 of Charter.

The Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH) has been given a mandate by the Committee of Ministers to focus on the interconnection between the protection of human rights and environment which is fostered through the obligations of the member States under the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, the steady development of the case-law by the European Court of Human Rights and of the conclusions and decisions of the European Committee of Social Rights as well as the increasing number of cases before national courts.

In February 2022, the CDDH published an updated version of its Manual on Human Rights and the Environment, as a 3rd edition, which examines how the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, in particular, contribute to the strengthening of environmental protection at national level, through the evolving case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the conclusions and decisions of the European Committee on Social Rights. The Manual also includes examples of good national practices amongst member States in an appendix.

The CDDH is currently preparing a draft Committee of Ministers' recommendation on human rights and the environment, to be followed by a feasibility study on further instruments, including a possible binding instrument.

HELP course on The Environment and Human Rights. It has the following modules:

  • Key concepts
  • The human rights-based approach to the environment protection
  • Green human rights in regional human rights systems
  • Human rights accountability for environmental harm done by business

The course has been produced closely linked with the update of the HELP course on Business and Human Rights, in cooperation with the Council of Europe Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH). Both course are interlinked but can be taken separately. The course on Business and Human Rights has the following modules:

  • Introduction
  • Pillar One: the State Duty to Protect
  • Pillar Two: the Corporate Responsibility to Respect
  • Pillar Three: an Effective Remedy
  • Extraterritoriality

 

The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) developed a large set of standards (Recommendations) supporting and guiding action by its 51 Contracting Parties in embedding the consideration of biodiversity issues cross-sectorally and in developing a national coherent vision addressing both climate change adaptation and mitigating its inevitable impacts, namely on nature. The Bern Convention also adopted a Vision for the period to 2030 which highlights its contribution to combatting climate change.

The Bern Convention is focussing its efforts on the implementation of its ambitious Programme of Work on Climate Change and Biodiversity and in particular the development of healthy ecosystems through the establishment of a pan-European network of areas of species conservation interest (Emerald Network). The issue of adaptive management of the Emerald Network areas is one of its main objectives.

 

The Council of Europe has made significant efforts to engage with and provide spaces for young people to address the climate crisis. For example, Compass: Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People includes a section on the environment and provides educational resources that can be used when working with young people during training. Meanwhile, to support efforts to put climate change and its impact on young people on the international political agenda, the Council of Europe’s Youth Department has undertaken various steps to promote ecologically neutral or positive projects to support initiatives aiming to “green” the youth sector. These include the Consultative meeting "The climate crisis, young people and democracy", the establishment of a task force on greening the youth sector by the Joint Council on Youth (CMJ), and resources such as the European Youth Foundation’s Guidelines towards Environmental Sustainability for projects (2014). The European Youth Centres in Strasbourg and Budapest have also implemented a range of initiatives to ensure sustainable and green activities, such as Meatless Mondays in Budapest, the use of non-disposable cups and cutlery, the introduction of water fountains in the Centres, and providing bicycles to participants, to name a few. The EU-Council of Europe youth partnership has developed several resources, including the Sustainability Checklist for greening the youth sector (EN, FR), T-KIT on Sustainability and Youth Work and the analytical paper Disobedient youth: Lessons from the youth climate strike movement.

 

The Articles of Agreement of the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB) define the aid to victims of natural or ecological disasters as one of its statutory priorities and its Environmental and Social Safeguards Policy, approved in 2016, specifies the Bank’s commitment to promoting environmentally and socially sustainable project development and implementation taking into account the relevant Council of Europe conventions and the European Principles for the Environment.

The CEB has a long history of tackling environmental challenges, directly through the sector “Protection of the environment” and, indirectly through different loans approved in the sectors of action “Improving living conditions in urban and rural areas” and “Natural or ecological disasters”.

Projects funded in the area of environmental protection include, among others, the reduction and treatment of solid and liquid waste; clean-up and protection of surface and underground water; energy-saving and efficiency measures; protection and development of biodiversity; cleaner transport means and networks and climate change adaptation measures.

In the last three years, the CEB has approved 10 new projects and one additional request for an existing project in the sector of action “Protection of the environment”, for a total value of €1.08 billion. Seventeen other projects contributing to the protection of the environment have been approved in the same period as part of multi-sector interventions.

 

The Parliamentary Assembly, via its Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, has been a stakeholder in the international process on climate change through the UN Climate Change Conferences. It has promoted action in this area, for example through Resolution 1976 (2014) on Climate change: a framework for a global agreement in 2015; and Resolution 2210 (2018) on “Climate change and implementation of the Paris Agreement”Resolution 2396 (2021) and Recommendation 2211 (2021) on “Anchoring the right to a healthy environment: need for enhanced action by the Council of Europe”, Resolution 2399 (2021) and Recommendation 2214 (2021) on “The climate crisis and the rule of law” were adopted by the Assembly in 2021 during its all-day debate during the September part-session. In January 2022, the Assembly adopted Resolution 2415 (2022) and Recommendation 2219 (2022) on “Inaction on climate change – a violation of children’s rights”, On 27 January 2022, the launching meeting of the Network of Contact Parliamentarians for a healthy environment was held.

On 3 October 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 2307 (2019) on A legal status for “climate refugees”. The report underlined that an estimated 200 million people would be displaced globally by 2050 because of climate change, and that the human mobility and displacement due to this degradation needed to be better anticipated. The interaction between climate change and conflict and violence should also be further assessed, and states must take “a more proactive approach to the protection of victims of natural and man-made disasters”, improving disaster preparedness mechanisms both in Europe and in other regions. Parliamentarians called for specific measures at local, national and international levels, to raise the resilience threshold of local communities, improve national disaster responses and management capacity, and to enhance legal protection of refugees in the context of environmental migration. Disaster risk reduction should be integrated into sustainable development and management policies. International legal provisions, such as those contained in the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention) could serve examples in relation to the obligation to protect persons displaced for environmental reasons. 

PACE initiative #EnvironmentRightNow to anchor the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment was launched during the Assembly’s 4th part-session of 2021 and led to the adoption of seven resolutions and five recommendations on the environment and climate change, including Resolution 2401 (2021) on Climate and migration. In this text, the Assembly called for strengthening human rights protection for those affected by climate-change-induced migration in Europe and beyond, acting on the following pillars: ensuring human rights protection for people who are forced to migrate by climate-change-induced disasters or hardship; using science and technology to serve people and save lives; improving development co-operation and emergency support in the countries of origin of migrants; and preventing environment degradation that multiply the effects of climate change. The rapporteur, Mr Pierre-Alain Fridez, also did a podcast on this issue.

To provide further support to UN-led initiatives in the field of migration, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted in 2021 the following texts: Resolution 2379 (2021) on the “Role of parliaments in implementing the United Nations global compacts for migrants and refugees” and Resolution 2408 (2021) on the “70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention: the Council of Europe and the international protection of refugees”.

Assembly Resolution 2397 (2021) “More participatory democracy to tackle climate change” aims at enhancing the active involvement of citizens in, and thus a greater support for, public action to address the climate challenge. (SDGs 13 and 16.7)

 

Resolution 2402 (2021) Research policies and environment protection calls on Council of Europe member States to review their research, innovation and development policies, in order to give the highest priority to the green economy, so as to bring economic development into line with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. In this context, the Assembly calls on member States to develop specific research programmes on renewable energies and on the circular economy.

The 2021 European Conference of Presidents of Parliament took place in Athens on 21-22 October 2021 and brought together some 60 Presidents and Vice-Presidents of parliament from the 47 Council of Europe member states, as well as of countries enjoying the status of observer or partner for democracy, and heads of several international parliamentary assemblies. The conference addressed three main themes, including that of '#EnvironmentRightNow': national parliaments and the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, underlining for each of them the specific role and responsibilities of parliaments. The conclusions of the conference are available on its website.

The achievement of the SDGs is a responsibility shared by all levels of governance - international, national, local and regional. Thanks to its expertise and proximity to the citizens, the Congress of the Council of Europe carries the territorial dimension of the SDGs. The Congress's work focuses on 12 of the 17 objectives defined in the United Nations Agenda 2030.»

For the last two decades, the Congress has been working on the different aspects related to the quality of the environment, the impact of climate change on citizen’s lives and energy transition.

The basic premise of Congress action is that local and regional authorities are required to adopt strategies to respond to environmental challenges and adapt their communities accordingly. This approach is carried out through the improvement of education, awareness and human and institutional capacities, as well as progress in fields such as transport, recycling, water and waste management, production and consumption of local products and tourism.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities adopted the following texts of relevance:

Environmental issues have been examined by the European Court of Human Rights in a large number of cases which have led to significant reforms in European states in order to safeguard and protect one’s living environment.

See Thematic Factsheet on Environment.

 

In her written observations to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Cláudia Duarte Agostinho and others v. Portugal and 32 other States, the Commissioner for Human Rights focuses on the negative impact of climate change on a range of human rights, in particular those of younger generations. See also the Commissioner’s thematic webpage on Environment and human rights.

See in particular the report on a round-table with environmental human rights defenders from across Europe held on 18 December 2020.

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