In recent years, and with growing intensity since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the concept of environmental health has emerged as a fundamental prism through which to analyse the complex interplay between global health and environmental law. Environmental risks, ranging from soil, water and air pollution to waste management and land use change, are now estimated to contribute to one quarter of the global disease burden, amounting to at least 13 million deaths per year according to assessments conducted by the World Health Organization (1).
Debates proliferate in multilateral fora ranging from the World Health Assembly to the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, covering aspects including the environmental determinants of health, the social-ecological dynamics of infectious disease emergence, and the direct and indirect health benefits arising from the fight against environmental degradation. As a consequence, the need to harness synergies between these two areas of global policy-making also becomes more urgent.
For this reason, I was especially happy to join Prof Riccardo Pavoni as a co-author for a chapter in the upcoming volume ‘Environmental Health in International and EU Law‘, edited by Prof Stefania Negri. The chapter particularly deals with the health impacts of current European legislation in the field of biodiversity, and the possibility for a more effective integration of human health and well-being within its provisions. It addresses the progressive incorporation of health considerations in the Habitats and Birds directives and in the Invasive Alien Species regulation, the use of health-related arguments in the biodiversity jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the linkage between environment and health in the application of the precautionary principle.
The volume, which will be published by Routledge in its ‘Routledge-Giappichelli Studies in Law‘ series at the end of the year, is now available for pre-order at this link.
(1) The WHO estimate is based on the following assessments: Prüss-Üstün A, Corvalán C. Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. Geneva: World Health Organization 2006; and Prüss-Üstün A, Wolf J, Cornavalán CF, Bos R, Neira MP. Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks. Geneva: World Health Organization: 2016.
As the G20 Summit in Hamburg wraps up to considerable media attention, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the other intergovernmental meeting currently under way, namely the 41st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (the body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and managing the World Heritage List and the World List of Heritage in Danger).
This year, the Committee has addressed important dossiers, including increased logging in the Białowieża Forest, the widespread destruction of the Site of Palmyra, and the repeated coral bleaching events affecting the Great Barrier Reef. For many of the sites inscribed in the two lists, the negative human impacts are growing, and certain country policies plainly run counter to the objectives of the Convention.
At the same time, however, the World Heritage Convention remains a powerful symbol of hope, and a testament to how sites of outstanding cultural and natural value speak to the very existence of humankind on planet Earth. In particular, the new inscriptions shall remind us of the quintessential importance of the interactions between different populations, religions and cultures in shaping human civilization as we know it (the Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town in the West Bank, the Historic City of Yazd in Iran, Kulangsu island in China); of the inextinguishable interplay between nature and culture in creating unique cultural landscapes which underpin the identity of human societies (the Kujataa farming landscape in Greenland, Taputapuātea on Ra’iatea Island, the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape between Botswana and Namibia); and of the multiple direct and indirect functions played by natural ecosystems around the world, ranging from their role as habitats of vulnerable and rare species to the irreplaceable services they provide for human well-being (the Landscapes of Dauria in Mongolia, the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in the Sudano-Sahelian region, the Primeval Beech Forests in the Carpathians and other areas of Europe).
In times of unprecedented threats to the world’s cultural and natural heritage, the work of UNESCO truly is invaluable, and after 35 years the World Heritage Convention continues to be one of the most relevant instruments in multilateral cooperation on global public goods. This is why all parties should refrain from politicizing its work, and instead seek to strengthen its contribution to cultural diplomacy, local livelihoods, and environmental protection.
For the newly inscribed properties, see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/newproperties/.