Asia in Focus:

Clean Air and
the business
and human
rights agenda

Asia in Focus:

Clean Air and
the business
and human
rights agenda

human rights image Air pollution and human rights

Current air pollution levels in Asia violate the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.34 Given its importance to human life and well-being, governments and businesses must recognise clean air as a human rights issue and an urgent policy objective. Classifying clean air as a human right changes the perspective with which governments and civil society see this issue. Government authorities now have a clear, legally enforceable obligation to respect, protect and provide for clean air as a human right.35

Classifying clean air as a human right changes the perspective with which governments and civil society see this issue. Government authorities now have a clear, legally enforceable obligation to respect, protect and provide for clean air as a human right.35

International human rights instruments

Human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (HRC/RES/48/13)

In July 2022, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) affirmed in resolution A/76/L.75 that a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right.37 This historic resolution largely adopted the language of the UN Human Rights Council resolution 48/13, on the same matter in October 2021. By extension, the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment includes the right to clean air. Experts interviewed for this report acknowledged the importance of these resolutions, despite their non-binding legal status, as they provide added support to arguments civil society champions bring to courts of law as they fight for remedies. Furthermore, classifying a clean environment (and clean air) as a human right also holds governments accountable for failing to act to prevent air pollution.


Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on 26 July 2022. The human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.36

The Human Rights Council’s recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a basic human right is significant in the following ways:

Recognition promotes a rights-based approach to addressing environmental violations:38 Classifying a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right opens the doors to identifying both the various attributes of a clean environment as well as groups that are denied access to a clean environment. Such a rights-based approach encourages people to question why there is a ‘lack of a clean environment’ and who should be held responsible.

Recognition places environmental pollution within the remit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs): Recognising a clean environment as a basic human right, brings the issue of environmental pollution, which includes air pollution, directly within the remit of the UNGPs. In their present form, the UNGPs do not mention climate change or nature. By recognising a clean environment as a basic human right, any form of environmental pollution (including air pollution) becomes an abuse of a human right, which necessitates remedial action on the part of both States and businesses.39

“Even non-binding resolutions like these [HRC/RES/48/13] prove to be a good tool for civil society organisations to fight for justice, particularly for the most disadvantaged and under-represented sections of society.”

- Hemantha Withanage, Senior Advisor, Centre for Environmental Justice (Sri Lanka)

Human right to water and sanitation (UNGA/RES/64/292)

The potential impact of recognising clean air as a human right can be understood through a review of other such measures, for example, the UN General Assembly’s 2010 resolution 64/292, which recognises clean water as a human right. Actions taken following the passing of this resolution demonstrate how non-legally binding human rights instruments can be used as a catalyst to drive solutions on environmental issues.41

A decade after it was introduced, evidence of the positive impacts of the 2010 resolution were outlined:42


Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 28 July 2010

The human right to water and sanitation40

Source: UNDP Sri Lanka

Encouraged further commitments: speaker image

Encouraged further commitments: The passing of resolution 64/292 encouraged commitments and action from multilateral agencies, strengthening the legal status of the right to clean water. In September 2010, the Human Rights Council passed resolution 15/9 affirming the General Assembly’s recognition and clarifying that the rights to water and sanitation are derived ‘from the right to an adequate standard of living, which is considered a binding human right in almost all States’. In May 2011, the WHO classified water and sanitation as human rights. In December 2015, the General Assembly passed resolution 70/169, acknowledging that ‘safe drinking water and sanitation constitute two distinct human rights that warrant separate treatment to address the specific challenges in their implementation, and to avoid sanitation being neglected as a secondary human right’.43 Acknowledging the right to water and sanitation influenced the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and led to the adoption of an independent goal on water and sanitation in the 2030 agenda.44

Updated legal frameworks: A gavel image

Updated legal frameworks: Several countries updated their legal frameworks to reflect water and sanitation as human rights, including Australia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Fiji, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Niger, Slovenia, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.45

Established independent monitoring: network image

Established independent monitoring: When implemented at a national level, the inclusion of the right to clean water in the legal framework has led to the creation of independent regulatory bodies that not only monitor compliance but also drive policy changes and enforce implementation.

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The UNGPs are a set of guidelines for States and businesses to follow to prevent and address human rights abuses committed in the context of business operations. The guidelines are based on three pillars, commonly referred to as the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework. The first pillar involves the State’s duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises. The second pillar focuses on the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights. Finally, the third pillar involves the need for both State and businesses to provide access to effective remedy.46

Business and Human rights image UN Guiding principles on Business and Human Rights

Pillar 1: The State duty to protect human rights

gavel image

The first pillar of the UNGPs focuses on the State's obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms. To implement this duty, the guiding principles recommend the setting of clear expectations, such as relevant legal guidelines for businesses, that must be followed by both domestic and foreign businesses within the State’s jurisdiction. Setting clear expectations ensures predictability for businesses by signalling a consistent message applicable to all enterprises.

In the context of the State’s responsibility, Foundational Principles 4 and 5 state that:

Principle 4: “States must protect against human rights abuse within their territory and/or jurisdiction by third parties, including business enterprises. This requires taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.47

Principle 5: “States should set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction respect human rights throughout their operations.

Pillar 2: The corporate responsibility to respect human rights

The second pillar of the UNGPs focuses on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. To carry out this responsibility, business enterprises are required to comply with all applicable local and international laws, but also go further and address any human rights risks or adverse human rights impacts of their operations. The UNGPs provide the necessary context for businesses to understand their responsibilities in taking steps to mitigate air pollution resulting directly from their operations.

UNDP Business and Human Rights Asia

Source: UNDP Business and Human Rights Asia

Guiding Principle 14 states, “The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises:

(a) Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities and address such impacts when they occur;

(b) Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”48

Pillar 3: Access to remedy

The final UNGP pillar outlines State and corporate responsibilities with regard to ensuring the appropriate judicial and legislative mechanisms are set up to address and remediate grievances and regulatory breaches.

Guiding Principle 25 states that: “As part of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuse, States must take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means, that when such abuses occur within their territory and/or jurisdiction those affected have access to effective remedy.

However, the onus does not rest solely with the State. Guiding Principle 29 provides that: “to make it possible for grievances to be addressed early and remediated directly, business enterprises should establish or participate in effective operational-level grievance mechanisms for individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted.

Subsequent to the establishment of the UNGPs in 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) urged States to develop National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights (BHR) that would define how the implementation of the UNGPs would be taken forward. At present, 43 governments and non-state actors (such as national human rights institutions) across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia have launched NAPs or NAP-related processes to implement the UNGPs. In Asia, three countries—Japan, Pakistan and Thailand—have successfully launched their NAPs, while India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia and Vietnam are in the active process of developing these policy initiatives. Promoting the UNGPs in Asia will strengthen internationally recognised standards of responsible business behaviour, based on agreed human rights norms while levelling the playing field for businesses that integrate human rights considerations into their operations and supply chain policies.

UNDP Business and Human Rights meeting image

Source: UNDP Business and Human Rights Asia

Clean air litigation at national level

The inclusion of environmental rights in a country’s constitution signals the country’s commitment to protecting its natural resources and shifts the conversation away from ‘whether to protect natural resources’ to ‘how to protect natural resources’. Using their constitutional environmental rights as leverage, petitioners in Asia have tried to hold governments and business entities accountable for their failure to address environmental issues, including air pollution. The table below highlights some instances of air-pollution-related litigation cases in Asia that have used a rights-based approach to seek redress for the adverse impacts of air pollution.

Notable instances of litigation cases involving air pollution in Asia49

2019 Indonesia

Jakarta air pollution lawsuit (2019, Indonesia)

jakarta city image

In 2019, 32 Jakarta citizens filed a legal challenge against the Indonesian President, three cabinet ministers, the Jakarta governor and two provincial leaders, for being negligent in their responsibility to control air pollution in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta. The verdict, which followed two years later, found that the Indonesian government had failed to uphold citizens' right to clean air. The court held that the President must establish national air quality standards to safeguard human health and that the health minister and Jakarta governor must design strategies to control air pollution. Other mandates included cross-border emissions analysis and periodic testing of old vehicles.

Segovia et al. v. Climate Change Commission et al. (2017, Philippines)

Philippines city image

Petitioners took legal action against the government demanding immediate and concrete action to reduce air pollution from transport emissions. The petitioners required the government to take steps to reduce ‘personal and official consumption of fossil fuels’ by at least 50%, implement road-sharing schemes, allocate open spaces for urban farming and release more financial resources to mitigate environmental pollution. However, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Supreme Court as it failed to fulfil all the legally required criteria for the issuance of writs.

Court on its own motion v. State of Himachal Pradesh & Others (2014, India)

 Himachal Pradesh india city image

India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued directives to protect ecologically sensitive areas in the glaciers of Himachal Pradesh. It argued that increased tourism activity in the region, and the resulting pollution from fossil-fuel-powered transport vehicles, was releasing unburnt hydrocarbons and carbon soot into the atmosphere. This was leading to the blackening of snow cover, which was affecting glaciers in the mountains. The NGT ordered the State of Himachal Pradesh to take steps to reduce air pollution in the region, through measures such as restricting transport in some regions to clean fuels or electric vehicles, random pollution checks and a reforestation programme.

Henares v. Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (2006, Philippines)

Philippines Transportation image

Petitioners brought a motion to the Supreme Court of the Philippines asking government agencies to mandate that public utility vehicles use clean transportation fuel (compressed natural gas) as a replacement for polluting fossil fuel. They alleged that emissions from fossil fuels were causing serious respiratory problems among citizens and that fossil-fuel-powered vehicles lead to air pollution that violates citizens’ right to clean air. In its judgement, the Supreme Court said that while the petitioners had legal standing—stemming from the right to clean air enshrined in the Philippines’ constitution—the requested writ of mandamus was inappropriate in this situation. Such a writ can only be issued to enforce a particular duty under law, and no law mandating the use of clean transport fuel exists.50

Matthew Lukose & Others v. Kerala State Pollution Control Board & Others (1990, India)

Kerala State water transport image

Petitioners brought legal action against Travancore-Electro Chemicals Industries Limited in the state of Kerala, for causing water and air pollution in neighbouring regions. They also sued the Kerala State Pollution Control Board for failing to prevent the entity from releasing these effluents and not taking steps to mitigate the harm resulting from them. The court found Travancore-Electro Chemicals Industries guilty of violating the national air pollution act and invasion of citizens’ constitutional right to life. As part of the verdict, the court suggested the creation of a national agency with powers to plan and enforce compliance. The court ordered the polluting industrial plant to comply with existing pollution norms within three months or to cease operations.

The above cases highlight how litigation can be a potentially powerful tool in raising awareness of the failure of the State and businesses to limit air pollution and its adverse impacts. However, few institutions or firms have been held accountable thus far. Citizen-led litigation might be more effective in the future where it is complemented by State commitments to the UNGPs through a NAP on Business and Human Rights.

Where States adopt a NAP on Business and Human Rights to implement the UNGPs, States can focus attention and consolidate the work of the many ministries that might regulate air quality. A NAP also offers a means of bringing public attention and inputs into planning and enforcement measures. Where States adopt a NAP on Business and Human Rights, they also send a clear message to businesses to respect human rights related to air quality. NAP processes may also encourage inputs from industry and lead to public commitments.

Finally, under Pillar 3, the UNGPs recognise that judicial mechanisms are a powerful tool providing for access to remedy. Clean air litigation can be complemented where the judiciary is also apprised of the concrete measures that government is taking to address air pollution in the context of a NAP on Business and Human Rights.

“We shouldn’t have to rely on legal action. When we recognise that people have the right to a healthy environment, that creates obligations on the part of the government, and governments should fulfil those obligations. Governments themselves need to respect, protect and fulfil the right. They need to respect the right by not violating it themselves through government projects that generate air pollution.”

- Dr David Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Associate Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia







3 For the full list of UNGPs, see >


5 Greenpeace Southeast Asia and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air







(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.

13 US AQI >100,300%20represents%20hazardous%20air%20quality
(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.

(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.










24 however,more%20healthy%20years%20of%20life





29 "Air quality guidelines (AQGs) released by the WHO provide recommendations on air quality levels as well as interim targets for six key air pollutants. These are based on the extensive scientific evidence currently available; the guidelines identify the levels of air quality necessary to protect public health worldwide. The AQGs also serve as a reference for assessing if, and by how much, the exposure of a population exceeds levels at which it might cause health concerns. They cover some of the most monitored pollutants critical for health, for which evidence on health effects from exposure has advanced the most in the past 15 years.”








37 United Nations, General Assembly, The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, A/76/L.75 (26 July 2022)


39 Interview insight - Dr Surya Deva
















55 Calculations by Economist Impact, based on data from (See Asia Transport Outlook Database – Excel file name > ‘National air pollution and health’, Sheet name> ‘APH-VAP-031’







62 Figures are estimates from modelling exercises. Scientific studies that use computer models do not give results with absolute certainty. Instead a range is provided (known as an 'interval'). The ‘confidence range’ is the range that is most likely to contain the true value. A 95% confidence interval means that with 95% probability, reality is somewhere inside the confidence interval, and a 5% chance it is outside the interval (either higher or lower than the range of numbers in the range). The value with the highest probability to be the true value is called the central estimate. It is somewhere inside the confidence interval. The bounds of the confidence interval are called the low and the high estimate.


64 These figures are central estimates. See footnote 60 for a definition of central estimates.


66 (Section on Highlights, page v)













79 Ground level ozone is a pollutant formed as a result of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. These chemicals are emitted from industrial plants, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust etc.

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100 Interview insight from Prarthana Borah















































147 For the full list of UNGPs, see >



150 Garton, Kelly, Thow, Anne Marie & Swinburn, Boyd. (2020). International Trade and Investment Agreements as Barriers to Food Environment Regulation for Public Health Nutrition: A Realist Review. Journal of Health Policy and Management.

151 For the full list of UNGPs, see >




155 Not exhaustive