NEW YORK—The United Nations (UN) is calling for a change in economic and business paradigms that will have a significant impact on planetary limits. In a report to the Human Rights Council, David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, said the earth’s life support system is being sabotaged in a way that will have profound consequences unless action is taken.

The U.S. economy has grown by 262 percent since the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970; meanwhile, the reduction in the main six air pollutants has only fallen by 73 percent. In his report, Boyd noted that large businesses are threatening the ecological integrity of the planet and abusing human rights, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

“States have failed to adequately regulate, monitor, prevent and punish businesses for their abuses of the climate, environment and human rights,” Boyd said. “The situation is further exacerbated as states often encourage, enable and subsidize destructive business activities.”

Approximately 22 percent of premature deaths caused by air pollution are linked to international trade, such as the production of goods destined for export from low- and middle-income nations to wealthy nations. The report highlighted one startling trend that showed air pollution caused by producing goods for consumption in Western Europe and the U.S. is now linked to more than 100,000 premature deaths annually in China.

“All businesses are responsible for respecting human rights, including the right to a healthy environment,” he said.

Boyd believes countries have a duty to protect human rights from actual and potential harm that businesses may cause, and an obligation to hold businesses accountable. The recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment has game-changing potential if countries and businesses comply with their obligations and responsibilities.

He recommends a shift to holistic alternatives to GDP for measuring progress, human rights due diligence legislation, rights-based climate and environmental laws, making polluters pay, and new business paradigms focused on society benefits instead of shareholder profits.

“In the big picture, humanity needs to shrink its collective ecological footprint, yet billions of people in the global South need to expand their energy and material use to achieve a comfortable standard of living and fully enjoy their human rights,” he said. “Society must confront this paradox. Wealthy states must take the lead in reducing their footprints and financing sustainable and equitable growth in the global South.

“Paradoxically, businesses have a critical role in supporting society’s quest for a just and sustainable future. Therefore, we need to promote good practices and require all businesses to shift to a paradigm that puts people and the planet before profit,” Boyd concluded.