The 2022 Declaration to Advance the “One Health” Approach
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has served as an excellent illustration of how quickly individual States as well as the international community can respond to a global emergency and what profound measures societies are willing to endure if only they feel that their health is seriously threatened. The same willingness is woefully lacking for equally health-relevant and urgent environmental issues, such as climate change. The dilemma: the negative health implications of environmental degradation are not as instantly felt and visible to people as those of a contagious and deadly virus like COVID-19. Hence, if more emphasis were to be put on the health aspects of environmental problems, governments dragging their feet could finally be pushed into taking action. This post argues that this could be done by including the “One Health” approach in the 2022 Declaration.
In the last three decades it has proven increasingly difficult to persuade States to adopt new environmental commitments. Except for the Paris Agreement in the climate change framework, international environmental law has lost momentum in key areas and since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, many States instead have preferred to focus on better implementing the existing treaties. Nevertheless, nearly 20 years after this change in focus, the vast majority of treaties are still failing to actually reduce the environmental harms they were designed to address.
For this reason, a report by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2018 sought to identify the gaps and deficiencies inherent to international environmental law. Among others, the report identified the fragmentation and sectoral nature of international environmental law responsible as one of its shortcomings. Many scholars have already written about the fragmentation of international environmental law and proposed different solutions to address the risks of duplication, divergence, and even conflict between environmental obligations that arise due to this fragmentation.
One prominent suggestion is the adoption of a “Global Pact for the Environment”, an umbrella treaty that codifies all guiding principles of international environmental law and sets a benchmark for all the sectoral agreements in force. But due to the States’ reluctance to adopt new legally binding agreements, the Global Pact has struggled to get passed. Resolution 73/333 mentioned neither the Draft Global Pact for the Environment nor recommended the launch of treaty negotiations to codify the fundamental principles of international environmental law, but simply proposed that the United Nations Environment Assembly shall prepare a “political declaration” for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2022 with a view to “strengthening the implementation of international environmental law and international environmental governance”.
It is needless to say that the world now needs more than just another political declaration with vague statements on the way forward. There is an urgent need to unblock the reluctance of States to adopt new legally binding environmental commitments and to find new ways to advance international environmental law.
The “One Health” approach could help change the way we think about the environment. This approach recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. It aims to achieve the best health outcomes for people, animals, and plants alike by promoting collaboration between professionals in human health, animal health, environment, and other areas of expertise.
Thus, the “One Health” approach could bring about changes in two respects:
- It could emphasize that our health is inherently dependent on the health of animals and the environment and that therefore our health is seriously threatened by the current rapidly progressing environmental degradation. This could promote state action, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has served as an excellent illustration of how quickly individual States, as well as the international community, can respond to a global emergency and what profound measures societies are willing to endure if only they feel that their health is seriously threatened. This is similar to directly felt natural disasters, like hurricanes or earthquakes, that often trigger legislative changes in the affected region and incite some politicians to more pro-environment voting, as several studies have found.4 Another study found that people who perceive that environmental problems pose a very serious threat to their health and well-being are more likely to engage overall in environmental practices and that overall environmental practices are better explained by personal environmental threats than demographic and political factors.5 Therefore if the general population were to feel more threatened also by environmental problems, such as climate change or pollution, that are generally not directly felt, they would engage more in environmental practices and eventually also demand their governmental representatives to address these concerns with more determination.
- The approach could foster cross-sectoral and holistic new laws which counter the currently fragmented international environmental law. Environmental issues like climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity would not only be considered a classic aspect of environmental protection anymore but also of health protection. In this sense, environmental hazards would not only be the responsibility of environmental ministries but also health authorities and other sectors would need to put environmental protection on their priority list. By working together, they could elaborate new comprehensive solutions to the environmental threats that we face today.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic favors the inclusion of the ‘One Health’ approach. The WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2 found that the virus that causes COVID-19 most likely leaped from animals to humans and had a zoonotic source. The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated in his address to the 73rd World Health Assembly on 18 May 2020:
“The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet. Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change, that is making our Earth less habitable.”
Embracing the “One Health” approach could be key in shaping public perception of the link between human health, animal health, and the environment. People need to realize that environmental degradation is not only an environmental concern but also a health concern.
The WHO recognizes that environmental commitment is key to improving human health worldwide and preventing a large number of diseases and deaths. It estimates that globally 24 percent of the burden of disease and 23 percent of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors. Therefore, the WHO has embraced the “One Health” approach in different contexts and collaborates with multiple actors to promote multi-sectoral responses especially to food safety hazards and risks from zoonoses.
But, although the launch of new “One Health” high-level expert panels and expert working groups by the WHO is laudable, the “One Health” approach must infiltrate all levels and sectors of our societies to cause profound change. It is high time that not only experts but also governments, corporations, and civil society comprehend that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. Because time and again, direct economic concerns have been shown to outweigh worries about the impacts of environmental issues, as recently shown in a Swiss referendum on a law to cut greenhouse gases using a combination of more renewables and taxes on fossil fuels.
By including the “One Health” approach in the 2022 Declaration, States could acknowledge that our health is inherently dependent on the health of animals and the environment and that all sectors have to work together now to act fast and holistically on the environmental problems we face today. This could help to make the public health urgency and emergency of environmental degradation more publicly felt and give new impulses to the development and improvement of international environmental law.
 G Nagtzaam, E Van Hook and D Guilfoyle, International Environmental Law: A Case Study Analysis (Routledge 2020) 575; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report’ (UNEP 2019) 27.
 To name just a few: KN Scott, ‘International Environmental Governance: Managing Fragmentation through Institutional Connection’ (2011) 12 Melbourne Journal of International Law 177 (advocating institutional cooperation and integration); CP Carlarne, ‘Good Climate Governance: Only a Fragmented System of International Law Away?’ (2008) 30 Law & Policy 450 (supporting the creation of an International Environmental Organization); RE Kim and K Bosselmann, ‘International Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Towards a Purposive System of Multilateral Environmental Agreements’ (2013) 2 Transnational Environmental Law 285 (making the case for recognizing a ‘Grundnorm’, an overarching goal that binds the actions of international environmental actors and institutions).
 See J Juste Ruiz, ‘The Process towards a Global Pact for the Environment at the United Nations: From Legal Ambition to Political Dilution’ (2020) 29 Review of European, Comparative and International Environmental Law 479.
 See ME Kahn, ‘Environmental disasters as risk regulation catalysts? The role of Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island in shaping U.S. environmental law’ (2007) 35 Journal of Risk and Uncertainty volume 17; S Gagliarducci, MD Paserman and E Patacchini, ‘Hurricanes, Climate Change Policies and Electoral Accountability’ (2019) National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series 25835; S Wilkinsona, JO Bamidele Rotimib and S Mannakarra, ‘Legislation Changes Following Earthquake Disasters’ in M Beer et al (eds), Encyclopedia of Earthquake Engineering (Springer, 2015).
 M Baldassare and C Katz, ‘The Personal Threat of Environmental Problems as Predictor of Environmental Practices’ (1992) 24 Environment and Behavior 602; see also PD Almeida, ‘The Role of Threat in Collective Action’ in D Snow et al (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (2nd edn, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2019) 43.
 This conclusion is not universally accepted, and there are also other hypothesises, for instance that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab in China, that could not be ruled out so far; see A Maxmen and S Mallapaty, ‘The COVID Lab-Leak hypothesis: What Scientists Do and Don’t Know’ (2021) 594 Nature 313.
 WHO, ‘WHO Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19’ (26 May 2020) <https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-manifesto-for-a-healthy-recovery-from-covid-19>.
 E.g., ME El Zowalaty and JD Järhult, ‘From SARS to COVID-19: A Previously Unknown SARS-Related Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) of Pandemic Potential Infecting Humans – Call for a One Health approach’ (2020) 9 One Health 100124; T Ahmad and J Hui, ‘One Health Approach and Coronavirus Disease 2019’ (2020) 16 Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics 931.
 The law had a broad approval by the parliament and government, but the majority of the population rejected it on 13 June 2021, mainly due to economic concerns that were raised in the run-up to the vote.