This Monday, 28 February, the world’s environment ministers will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, to resume the fifth UN Environment Assembly, which takes up the theme of ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). Ahead of the Conference, seven countries from Africa and South Asia have tabled a resolution on animal welfare, the environment, and the sustainable development nexus.
The proposed resolution calls on countries to protect animals in their efforts to pursue sustainable development, and requests the preparation of a report and awareness strategy on the relationship between animal welfare, the environment, and sustainable development.
This is a notable development since, to date, animal welfare has been largely neglected in international sustainable development governance. Indeed, the 2019 UN Global Sustainable Development Report identified animal welfare as one of several key missing issues in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs.
Our relationship with animals matters for our health and the environment
Adopted in 2015, the world’s development agenda envisages a world “in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.” Yet, although several of the agenda’s 169 targets focus on conservation of species, biodiversity, and habitats, no target references the well-being of individual animals, whether wild or domesticated.
This is an important oversight. The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that human and non-human health and welfare are linked. Practices that undermine animals’ wellbeing have negative consequences for humans, too. While we might not know how the novel coronavirus originated, we do know that habitat destruction, industrial livestock farming, and wildlife trade and use contribute to the emergence of infectious disease. For instance, profligate antimicrobial use to promote growth and to mitigate infection risk in close-quartered livestock is a leading contributor to antimicrobial resistance. Deforestation – driven partly by animal agriculture – is a major contributor to zoonotic disease spread.
Moreover, although animal products can be an important source of protein and nutrients in food insecure settings, overconsumption of red and processed meat in many high-income and middle-income countries is associated with a range of adverse health outcomes such as increased risk of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Animal agriculture is also a leading consumer of land and water, and a major driver of biodiversity loss and climate change, responsible for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A recent study showed that high-income countries could cut their agricultural emissions by almost two-thirds and free up a land area as large as the European Union by substantially reducing their intake of animal products. Another showed that the world could save USD 1.6 trillion by 2050 in health and climate change damages by transitioning to a plant-based diet.
While a wholesale shift in this direction currently may not be realistic or desirable everywhere, these numbers illustrate the many potential co-benefits of rethinking our relationship with animals. But many governments are actively perpetuating industrial meat production and consumption through deregulation and subsidies, allowing this industry to harm our health, environment, and animals at the same time.
The experiences of non-human animals matter
Beyond public health and the environment, there is growing consensus in the scientific and philosophical communities that non-human animals can have a variety of positive and negative experiences, and that their welfare matters morally. Governments are increasingly accepting these ideas as well. For instance, both the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the African Union’s Animal Welfare Strategy for Africa recognize animals’ sentience. Over 45 countries have indicated their support for a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare.
Future environmental problems will affect humans and nonhumans alike, and our responses to these problems will too. As we learned from the 2020 Australia bushfires and 2021 floods and heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, when fires, floods, and viral outbreaks occur, animals can be vulnerable, in addition to their exposure to violence or neglect from humans. As we transform infrastructure to be more resilient and sustainable and make policies to reduce environmental risks, we have the opportunity to reduce harms to humans and nonhumans at the same time.
Governments have an opportunity to achieve simultaneous benefits
So the seven countries introducing this resolution are right: we need to include animals in sustainable development governance for both our sakes and theirs. Governments have a responsibility to consider animal welfare when deciding how to tackle our sustainable development challenges.
There are many ways to do so. For instance, governments can require improved information and transparency around animal welfare through product labelling and certification. Such labelling could cover goods and services such as food, furniture, clothing, machinery, energy, cleaning products, and cosmetics, which often affect animals through their direct use or through habitat destruction or pollution.
Governments can also phase down subsidies for practices that impose significant costs on humans, animals, and the environment. Instead, they could increase support for healthy, compassionate, and sustainable alternatives.
Another promising approach is for countries to introduce requirements to conduct animal impact assessments (AIAs) for policies or interventions that will significantly affect animals. Many jurisdictions already require environmental impact assessments (EIAs) under certain circumstances. But while EIAs might consider impacts on biodiversity, they do not consider impacts on animal welfare. Combining EIAs with AIAs will enable us to make more informed decisions that benefit humans, animals, and the environment.
Promoting animal welfare in sustainable development governance will not always be easy. It will require transformative changes to some industries, practices, and values. It will thus encounter resistance from powerful lobby and interest groups.
Nevertheless, this meeting is a chance to catalyse a wide range of policies that benefit humans and nonhumans alike. As governments gather in Nairobi, they have an opportunity to give this topic the recognition it deserves.
This guest article is authored by: Cleo Verkuijl, Research Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI); Jeff Sebo, Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program, New York University (NYU); and Jonathan Green, Senior Researcher, SEI.