The UN Right to Breathe Clean Air: An ESG Responsibility

The UN Right to Breathe Clean Air: An ESG Responsibility

ESG initiatives


In July 2022, with 161 votes in favour and eight abstentions, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution when it declared access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment a universal human right. This right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment includes the right to breathe clean air.

Although the resolution is not legally binding for UN Member States, the impact of such a resolution has the potential to be profound. It calls upon States, international organisations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy, non-toxic environment in which to live work, study and play. A similar resolution regarding clean water in 2010 compelled governments all over the world to review their legislation, making clean water accessible and affordable to all.

The UN Right To Breathe Clean Air: For the business community this is a clear opportunity to boost their ESG credentials.

The United Nation’s role in initiating and providing guidance on social and environmental issues to the corporate world is well established and hugely influential. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and it marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air and water, and the well-being of people around the world.

Indeed it was the UN that was responsible for the first mainstream mention of ESG in the modern context with the 2004 report ‘Who Cares Wins’. Initiated by the UN Secretary General and UN Global Compact in collaboration with the Swiss government, it provided a framework for the financial industry to better integrate environmental, social and governance issues in analysis, asset management and securities brokerage. In the report, the U.N. Global Compact Principles included that businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights within their sphere of influence; and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.

This proposal of aligning global businesses with human rights and sustainability prepared the ground for the United Nations Principles on Responsible Investing (UNPRI), which were formally launched in 2006. The UNPRI works to promote the incorporation of ESG into investment decision-making. The UN has also made important contributions to how nature and economy must be seen as synchronised. A significant example of this is ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Bio-diversity’ study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Its principal objective was to mainstream the values of biodiversity and the ecosystem into decision-making at all levels. The idea that our common future is critically dependent on making the environment and health our top priorities was clearly set out.   

In addition, the business community’s responsibility in relation to Human Rights was also established in the ‘UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) on Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines’. The UNGPs were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and Pillar II unequivocally states that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights. These human rights obligations now provide vital guardrails for economic policies and business models worldwide.

More recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which underpin the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN, is another prominent global framework often employed in the context of social and environmental impacts by business all over the world. The SDGs combine economic, social and environmental angles, with the overall focus on building resilience and reducing inequalities. The growing engagement of companies with these goals facilitates them in linking their sustainability efforts with the priorities of the broader world. And as the practice and pursuit of ESG gains traction, there is a growing record of companies that have learnt to combine profit making with greater social responsibility.

The United Nations Right to Breathe Clean Air

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the ‘historic’ decision of the right to a healthy environment and said the landmark development demonstrates that Member States can come together in the collective fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, especially those that are in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples”, he said in a statement released by his Spokesperson’s Office.

He added that the decision will also help States accelerate the implementation of their environmental and human rights obligations and commitments.

Though the importance of the role of regulators in encouraging positive ESG behaviours and actions is clear, the adoption of this newest resolution by the business world should not be dependent upon law or regulation. The declaration has highlighted that minimal legal requirements are no longer good enough and if we have reached a point where we consider ESG as an essential element of corporate and investment strategy, then the declaration itself can act as a powerful catalyst for action. Indeed, if ESG is central to decision making then corporations have a responsibility to ensure the trickle-down effect of the resolution.  

Antonio Guterres emphasised that the adoption of the resolution ‘is only the beginning’ and urged nations to make this newly recognised right ‘a reality for everyone, everywhere’. As facilitators of change in this world, businesses have the power to instigate this and act as agents of change for a healthy environment. By placing human rights at the core of environmental issues, the UN have empowered us to demand better but they have also firmly placed the right to breathe clean air at the centre of our ESG responsibilities.

For more on how you can fulfill your responsibility to ensure the human right to breathe clean air, visit our website or contact us

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About ASL 

Our mantra is design thinking and innovation for the air aware consumer. As an independent, international certification company, we create peer-reviewed, scientific standards for a wide range of products and services to determine their impact on indoor air quality. ASL’s intellectual property portfolio includes unique protocols for products to be CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®. Our mission is to improve lives by empowering people to create the healthiest possible indoor environment through science (ASL Standards), education (ASL Academy) and innovation (ASL Institute).


Anna O’Donovan

Key Words

ESG, social, governance, human right, environment, air quality, asthma, health, allergies, allergens, healthy home, third party certification,  standards, indoor environment, social justice, United Nations, sustainable development goals, business, ESG initiatives


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