Air quality is connected to human rights.
The evidence is solid, and leaves no doubt. Many studies have linked air pollution with serious health outcomes and premature deaths, even at low levels that meet current regulatory guidelines.
More than a nuisance
Wood burning is a major source of air pollution in many communities.
For far too long, wood smoke pollution has been treated as a nuisance issue, when it is, in fact, a serious public health problem that violates the rights of those who suffer from it.
Clean air and human rights
Dr. David R. Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, has stated that clean air must be regarded as a fundamental human right:
For decades, governments have treated air pollution as an environmental issue. Recently it has started being treated as a health issue. Both of these approaches identify cleaner air as a policy goal. But policy goals are inadequate because they are undermined by flexibility, discretion, and the absence of accountability.
Clean air must, instead, be viewed as a human right that touches upon other rights:
The human rights perspective changes everything, because governments have clear, legally enforceable obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
The right to a healthy environment
In 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution proclaiming that everyone has a right to a healthy environment. While not legally binding on its member states, the resolution’s backers pointed out that it is an important step. According to Dr. Boyd, “These resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful.”
Wood heating is not compatible with a healthy environment
A report by the Australian Capital Territory’s Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment, which recommended phasing out wood stoves in the ACT, noted that wood heating is not compatible with a human right to a healthy environment, which the ACT has committed to support.
The report pointed out that a minority of households burn wood, and that “this further underpins the inherent inequity” of policies that prioritize “the rights of a small proportion of people to burn wood” over the health impacts on everyone else, both on a population scale and for individual people who are medically more vulnerable.
The right to health
According to the World Health Organization, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”
A large and growing body of research leaves no doubt that people who are exposed to wood smoke pollution where they live, work or go to school face increased risks for serious health outcomes, and even premature death, compared to others who spend their days in neighborhoods with less localized air pollution.
When people are involuntarily exposed to pollution from wood burning, they are denied the human right to attain their highest possible standard of health.