This week, governments will convene for the Stockholm+50 conference, which marks the 50th anniversary of the original UN summit where nations recognized the importance of protecting the environment. This conference is an ideal time to reflect on successes and failures over the past five decades. Action to protect the environment has accelerated, but so have climate change, biodiversity loss, and other forms of environmental degradation. Much stronger action is needed to mitigate and adapt to these global threats.
Reflecting on the state of sustainable development governance is important, because the work is still at an early stage. At present, the international community is not only failing to adequately protect humans, but is also failing to even recognize the importance of protecting nonhumans. Yet nonhuman animals are stakeholders of international policy, too, and every sustainable development goal matters for them in one way or another. At Stockholm+50, world leaders will have an opportunity – and responsibility – to recognize that.
Experts increasingly agree that human, nonhuman and environmental health are linked. Industries like factory farming, deforestation and the wildlife trade not only kill hundreds of billions of animals per year, but also contribute to disease outbreaks, climate change and other threats. These threats then kill animals all over again. For instance, they expose animals to infectious diseases, fires and floods, as well as to increased human violence and neglect, as illustrated by recent mass cullings linked to bird flu, Covid-19 and water scarcity.
Yet nations have largely neglected animal welfare in sustainable development governance. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development expresses a desire for a world “in which wildlife and other living species are protected.” But although several of the Agenda’s 169 targets focus on conservation of species, biodiversity and habitats, none references the welfare of individual animals. Given our growing understanding of the capacity that many animals have for rich sensory and emotional lives, this oversight is unacceptable.
Some people might be reluctant to consider animal welfare in sustainable development governance because they worry that human and nonhuman interests may conflict, or that we lack the knowledge and capacity that we need to help animals effectively. But human and nonhuman interests are often aligned. And if we consider our interests holistically, then we can pursue a wide range of co-beneficial policies in the short term as well as build the knowledge and capacity needed to help animals more effectively in the long run.
“Experts increasingly agree that human, non-human and environmental health are linked. Industries like factory farming, deforestation and the wildlife trade not only kill hundreds of billions of animals per year, but also contribute to disease outbreaks, climate change and other threats.”
Take our climate change mitigation strategies. Considering animal welfare allows us to develop food systems that benefit humans, animals and the environment at the same time. For example, if we shift away from industrial animal agriculture and towards plant agriculture (while ensuring a just transition for consumers and workers), then we can provide healthful food for humans while reducing animal suffering, land use, water use, air pollution, land pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and antimicrobial resistance.
Or take our climate change adaptation strategies. Considering animal welfare allows us to develop infrastructure that benefits humans, animals and the environment at the same time. For instance, when we upgrade buildings to be more energy-efficient, we can also install bird-friendly glass to reduce collisions. And when we upgrade transportation systems for similar reasons, we can install wildlife corridors with similar effects. These changes would be good for all of us and can be made more affordably when packaged together.
Fortunately, world leaders are starting to recognize the importance of animals in some respects. The One Health framework recognizes that human, nonhuman and environmental health are linked, and so our efforts to improve human, nonhuman and environmental health should be linked, as well. But standard interpretations and applications of this framework tend to value improving nonhuman health primarily for the sake of humans, which can lead to policy decisions that harm or neglect animals unnecessarily.
In February 2022, governments took a step toward correcting this mistake by passing a UN resolution that recognises the relevance of animal welfare for sustainable development. We should also recognise that animals are valuable not merely instrumentally, as means to human ends, but also intrinsically, as ends in themselves. A One Health framework that incorporates this idea would be a powerful instrument for change. It would lead us to seek sustainable development policies that can benefit a much wider range of stakeholders.
As nations convene in Stockholm, they can build on this progress by working toward new goals and commitments that treat humans and nonhumans alike as stakeholders in sustainable development governance. Granted, it will take time for nations to translate these goals and commitments into policies, and it will also take time for nations to fully implement these policies. But we already know what some of the first steps can be. Consider three actions that UN members can start taking immediately:
- First, nations can recognize the intrinsic value of animal welfare and the relationship between animal welfare and sustainable development in the goals and targets that they set at Stockholm+50 and beyond.
- Second, nations can strengthen and broaden their One Health commitments to reflect the intrinsic value of animal welfare, such as by making a commitment to consider animal welfare in the impact assessments that shape policy decisions.
- Third, nations can support policies that benefit humans and nonhumans alike, for instance by educating the public about the links between human, animal and environmental health and welfare; phasing out subsidies for co-harmful practices and increasing subsidies for co-beneficial practices; and investing in just transition policies that support vulnerable populations in transitioning toward more sustainable and compassionate societies.
The power of sustainable development as an ideal is the recognition that social, economic and environmental justice are all compatible if pursued thoughtfully. The time has come to recognize that the same can be true of human, nonhuman, and environmental justice. Human and nonhuman fates are linked, and when we consider these links, we can create a more resilient and sustainable planet for many of us, rather than only the privileged few.