HUMAN RIGHTS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
There is no longer any question: climate change is a human rights issue. Rising seas threaten the residents of small island nations. Melting glaciers affect freshwater resources in South American and Himalayan communities, while intruding seas contaminate groundwater in coastal and low-lying communities. Melting snow and ice threaten the food and security of Arctic peoples.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Human Rights Council, and others recognize that climate change is not only an environmental but also a human rights issue for those experiencing these devastating impacts. To prevent further harm, the UNFCCC has explicitly recognized (but not yet operationalized) the need to protect human rights in all climate action.
The Human Rights & Climate Change Working Group engages in the following ways:
- Within the UNFCCC, we advocate for human rights in the development, implementation and monitoring of the climate policies, institutions and mechanisms established under the UNFCCC.
- Within Other International Processes, including the post-2015 agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights Council. We advance the linkages between human rights and climate change.
- At the National and Regional Levels, we provide technical support with respect to the implementation of rights-based policies and actions on the ground.
- At the Community Level, we help to build capacity and provide support to peoples and communities seeking to hold state and corporate actors accountable for the adverse impacts of climate policies and actions.
The Human Rights and Climate Change Working Group and our partners (including the Accra Caucus, Geneva Group, Indigenous Peoples Caucus, REDD+ Safeguards Working Group, and the Women and Gender Constituency) have prepared submissions, analyses, interventions and publications on a wide range of issues related to the human rights dimensions of climate change.
Browse our work on institutional processes at the UNFCCC and UN Human Rights Council, and on specific issues, including: Ambition, Finance, Land Use, Public Participation, REDD+, Safeguards and Accountability, and Women and Gender
The failure to increase ambition (in other words, take necessary action to mitigate climate change) will significantly impact the rights of vulnerable peoples and communities around the world. To minimize future losses and damages, in Paris, the Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to limit the rise of “global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius” while aiming to achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, despite this internationally agreed (and adopted) goal, countries have made national commitments to reduce emissions that – even if met – are inadequate to prevent dangerous climate change.
The international community has a critical opportunity between now and 2020 to show much-needed leadership, and to fulfill their obligations to protect those most vulnerable to but least responsible for climate change.
As the international community becomes more serious about addressing climate change, there has been increased attention put on the financial resources needed to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change (climate finance). The governance and distribution of climate finance have implications for the full range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, housing, and culture, among others. A human rights-based approach to climate finance will help to ensure that countries avoid or minimize the human rights impacts of mitigation and adaptation measures, and to promote sustainable and equitable low-carbon development.
Measures that reduce vulnerability and increase adaptive capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change affect the lives, livelihoods and cultures of peoples and communities, and thus have implications for the full and effective enjoyment of human rights. Adaptation measures, such as construction of sea walls, relocation of populations from flood-prone areas, improved water management, and early warning systems, could have both positive and negative effects on the rights to life, health, food, water, and housing, among others.
The Adaptation Fund Board has made a commitment to ensure that all Adaptation Fund projects and programmes respect and protect human rights. The overall policy is consistent with the Paris Agreement and the underlying human rights obligations, which require countries to respect human rights when taking action to address climate change.
Clean Development Mechanism
Established under the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, the Clean Development Mechanism is the most prominent market-based mechanism that involves emissions trading between developed and developing countries. The CDM allows developed countries – specifically those included in Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol – to reduce their overall emissions more cost-effectively in developing countries than at home.
Current CDM rules and procedures contain some tools that help promote a rights-based approach, such as various channels for public participation. However, the CDM has yet to fully adopt a rights-based approach to ensure that its operations contribute to sustainable development, including respect for human rights.
Filzmoser, Voigt, Trunk, Olsen and Jegede, The Need for a Rights-Based Approach to the Clean Development Mechanism
Green Climate Fund
At the UN climate negotiations in 2010, governments created the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a public institution to channel the billions of dollars needed to support developing countries in tackling climate change. If it is properly funded and strong human rights and environmental protections are applied, the Green Climate Fund has enormous potential to have truly transformative impact. While the Fund continues to struggle to mobilize the money needed, the Board continues to design the rules and procedures for how the Fund will operate.
Needed are safeguards, accountability, and public participation, each of which are critical to protecting the lives and livelihoods of those affected by mitigation and adaptation activities. All too often, activities that are intended to solve one problem (climate change) result in other problems, threatening the human rights of those who stand their path.
Maintaining and enhancing the integrity and resilience of ecosystems is critical for the long-term effectiveness of climate mitigation and adaptation. Healthy ecosystems sequester and store carbon, while providing a natural defense against climatic hazards such as floods, sea-level rise and drought, and supporting the livelihoods and welfare of billions of people. When they are destroyed or degraded, ecosystems become a source of emissions, and their ability to enable people and other species to adapt is compromised. Actions taken to maintain or enhance ecosystem health, integrity and resilience will help countries to achieve their mitigation and adaptation objectives and to avoid ill-conceived climate responses that perversely undermine progress towards these objectives.
Similarly, respecting, protecting, promoting and fulfilling rights is fundamental to long-term success of climate actions. For example, with respect to the right to participation, mitigation and adaptation actions must be based on – and will benefit from – full and effective participation of those directly affected, including vulnerable and marginalized groups. Linking ecosystem integrity to a rights-based approach recognizes the intrinsic connections between these principles and adopting a holistic approach to climate actions can in turn maximize social, environmental and economic objectives.
Focusing solely on reducing GHG emissions may lead to disastrous unintended consequences for ecosystems and people, particularly those who are most vulnerable. The IPCC recognizes the threat that certain mitigation actions present to ecosystems, and acknowledges that measures should be undertaken with a multi-objective perspective. Mitigation or adaptation actions that do not adequately consider ecosystems may be maladaptive, delivering minimal emission reductions – or in the worst case increasing emissions – and exacerbating the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to the impacts of climate change. Poorly planned deployment of bioenergy, hydropower and other climate responses is already driving ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss, and undermining livelihoods.
The right to public participation in decision-making is specifically recognized in the context of environmental issues, including climate change. For example, the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and the Aarhus Convention affirm that the best environmental decisions are made when civil society participates.
The UNFCCC provides that Parties must promote and facilitate public participation in addressing climate change and its effects and developing adequate responses. It further states that Parties must encourage the widest participation in the negotiation process, and that access and participation of observers in the process promotes transparency in this increasingly complex, universal problem. Meaningful and effective public participation in relevant negotiating processes helps to promote wide public support and ensure the legitimacy of financial institutions and their policies.
REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The “+” expands REDD to include conservation, sustainable forest management, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
REDD+ is one of the proposed international solutions to tackle climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The basic concept recognizes that forests play an important role in protecting the climate and creates a financial incentive for developing countries to protect forests and reduce emissions.
If human rights, as well as biodiversity, are respected and promoted, then REDD+ has the potential to deliver a wide range of benefits to the climate, to biodiversity, and to communities that depend on forests. However, REDD+ can also cause negative – and irreversible – impacts to the earth’s forests and the peoples whose livelihoods depend upon them if activities are implemented without respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and other local communities and complying with obligations that a country may have.
Safeguards and Accountability
UN Human Rights Council
The UN Human Rights Council has shown significant leadership on the connection between human rights and climate change. For example, in 2008, it adopted a resolution on human rights and climate change, stating that climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” Subsequent interventions include:
- Human Rights Council Panel Discussion on the Adverse Impacts of Climate Change on Human Rights (6 March 2015)
- Human Rights Council Resolution 26/27 on Human Rights and Climate Change (23 June 2014)
- Human Rights Council Seminar on Human Rights and Climate Change (23-24 February 2012)
- Human Rights Council Resolution 18/22 on Human Rights and Climate Change (30 September 2011)
- Human Rights Council Resolution 10/4 on Human Rights and Climate Change (25 March 2009
Under human rights law, States have obligations to protect those whose rights are affected by climate change, with priority given to groups that are particularly vulnerable. By extension, the UNFCCC, the Council and others have recognized that States must ensure that their responses to climate change do not themselves violate human rights.
In 2011, the UNFCCC took a critical step when it adopted the Cancun Agreements, which explicitly call on Parties to respect human rights when taking actions to address climate change.
The Paris Agreement in 2015 marked a watershed moment. The preamble called on countries to respect and promote human rights in all actions taken to address climate change. This was a landmark achievement: it marked the first reference to human rights in any multilateral environmental agreement. While the Paris Agreement is far from perfect, in this respect, it represents an important step.
The challenge now is to ensure that climate policies are designed, implemented and monitored in a manner that protects the full and effective enjoyment of human rights. For example, States must develop national climate policies – such as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) – through transparent processes that promote the effective participation of all affected communities, including indigenous peoples and other vulnerable populations. It is also important to note that developed countries have responsibilities to assist poorer developing countries in their efforts to respect human rights, which complement developed country obligations under the UNFCCC.
“Climate Change: Tackling the Greatest Human Rights Challenge of Our Time,” CARE International and the Center for International Environmental Law (Feb 2015)
During the February 2015 climate negotiations in Geneva, 18 countries announced The Geneva Pledge on Human Rights in Climate Action. The non-binding, voluntary pledge reiterates the importance to address the human rights implications of climate change and emphasizes that human rights should inform to climate responses. More specifically, it commits its signatories to promote better cooperation among their representatives at the Human Rights Council and at the UNFCCC, as well as to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and best practices among their own delegations.
As of November 27, 2015, the following states have signed onto The Geneva Pledge: Andorra, Algeria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Côte d´Ivoire, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Kiribati, Luxembourg, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Morocco, Micronesia, Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Samoa, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Uganda and Uruguay.
Human Rights in the Paris Agreement
Since 2009, the Human Rights & Climate Change Working Group has advocated to integrate human rights in the UNFCCC. The 2015 Paris Agreement, adopted by 195 nations, marks a watershed moment in our advocacy efforts. The preamble to the Agreement references human rights, marking the first such reference in a multilateral environmental agreement. But much work remains to turn this commitment into protections on the ground.
Road to Paris: Protecting human rights in climate action
In the lead-up to the climate talks in Copenhagen (COP15), the Working Group called on countries to recognize the human rights dimensions of climate change. Although countries failed to reach an agreement in Copenhagen, the UNFCCC took a critical first step the following year, when it adopted the Cancun Agreements, which explicitly call on Parties to respect human rights when taking actions to address climate change.
In February 2015, we secured the first reference to human rights in the draft negotiating text for the Paris Agreement, when Mexico, Chile, Tuvalu, Uganda, and others championed our human rights language.
Over the course of the year, we worked along with our allies to build a coalition representing women and gender, indigenous peoples, labor and trade unions, youth, faith-based, human rights, environmental, and climate justice groups. This unprecedented coalition proved to be immensely successful. Despite all odds, we secured strong language calling on countries to respect and promote human rights in all actions taken to address climate change.
During COP21, we put the issue of human rights on the political agenda, making it clear that the Paris Agreement marks the beginning of the road. Looking ahead, we have much work to do to build the capacity of countries to protect human rights when taking climate action and to hold them accountable when they fail to do so.
New UN Report Details Link between Climate Change and Human Rights Thu, Dec 10, 2015
Released on Human Rights Day, ahead of the finalization of a new climate agreement, Climate Change and Human Rights provides a comprehensive study of the links between human rights law and climate change.
Paris, 10 December 2015 – Recognizing the link between climate change and human rights is an important step towards protecting the fundamental rights of communities across the planet, according to a new United Nations report presented at the Paris climate meeting today.
Released on Human Rights Day, ahead of the finalization of a new climate agreement, Climate Change and Human Rights provides a comprehensive study of the links between human rights law and climate change. It says that anthropogenic climate change is the largest, most pervasive threat to the natural environment and human rights of our time.
The far-reaching environmental impacts of climate change are already being felt, posing a potential threat to human rights across the world, including the rights to health, food and an adequate standard of living.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “Climate change is already having direct impact on humans and settlements through the degradation of ecosystems and resources, upon which so many depend for survival and livelihoods. We will see its impacts continue to affect the human rights of millions of people as conditions worsen.
“This new research sheds light on the link between climate change and human rights and can serve as a reference point for climate action beyond the stepping stone of the Paris agreement.”
The report-developed by UNEP in cooperation with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School-highlights the need for greater ambition in climate change actions and targets in order to safeguard human rights.
Citing UNEP’s 2015 Emissions Gap research, the report says that full implementation of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions is projected to reduce emissions in 2030 by up to 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, and will leave the world 12 gigatonnes short of the level required by 2030 to give a chance of staying below the “safe” level of 2°C global temperature rise this century.
This means that the projected level of global warming might result in climatic and environmental impacts, with potential impacts on human rights.
John H. Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, said, “This report arrives at a critical moment, as the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Paris to begin a new chapter in our generational effort to defeat climate change. The report provides an indispensable basis for climate policy going forward, helping us see in detail how climate change threatens our ability to enjoy our human rights, and also how the exercise of human rights can inform and guide our climate policies.”
The report issues a set of specific recommendations related to protecting human rights from climate change impacts and responses, including:
- The inclusion in the Paris agreement of a schedule for assessing and revisiting country commitments with the aim of increasing, over time, the ambition of the climate targets set by countries.
- A reference in the Paris Agreement to the effects of climate change on the exercise of human rights and the need to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights in all climate-related activities.
- Ensuring implementation of social safeguards in various climate funds to take into account human rights considerations.
While the report acknowledges that many nations have taken steps towards fulfilling their obligations, it concludes by saying that only through increasing ambition and working collectively on climate change can the international community ensure the protection of human rights for all citizens across the world.
“Climate change is the result of choices made by human beings and has devastating impacts on a wide range of internationally guaranteed human rights-the rights to food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and health-for millions of people,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Human rights law imposes affirmative legal obligations on all states to protect human rights from climate harms, particularly the rights of persons in vulnerable situations, and to ensure accountability, including redress, where harms are suffered. We are living in an age of widespread breach of these obligations.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
For more information, please contact:
Shereen Zorba, Head of News and Media, UNEP, +254 788 526 000, firstname.lastname@example.org
INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE
In its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.
The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by persons and communities already in disadvantageous situations owing to geography, poverty, gender, age, disability, cultural or ethnic background, among others, that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, persons, communities and even entire States that occupy and rely upon low-lying coastal lands, tundra and Arctic ice, arid lands, and other delicate ecosystems and at risk territories for their housing and subsistence face the greatest threats from climate change.
The negative impacts caused by climate change are global, contemporaneous and subject to increase exponentially according to the degree of climate change that ultimately takes place. Climate change, therefore, requires a global rights-based response. The Human Rights Council (HRC), its special procedures mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have sought to bring renewed attention to human rights and climate change through a series of resolutions, reports, and activities on the subject, and by advocating for a human rights based approach to climate change. The Preamble of the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change makes it clear that all States “should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”.
OHCHR’s Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change
OHCHR’s Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change highlight the essential obligations and responsibilities of States and other duty-bearers (including businesses) and their implications for climate change-related agreements, policies, and actions. In order to foster policy coherence and help ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are adequate, sufficiently ambitious, non-discriminatory and otherwise compliant with human rights obligations, the following considerations should be reflected in all climate action.
- To mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts
- To ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change
- To ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by climate change
- To mobilize maximum available resources for sustainable, human rights-based development
- International cooperation
- To ensure equity in climate action
- To guarantee that everyone enjoys the benefits of science and its applications
- To protect human rights from business harms
- To guarantee equality and non-discrimination
- To ensure meaningful and informed participation
These messages are reflected in OHCHR’s submission, Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, to the 21st Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (27 November 2015).
Advocating a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change
The HRC has highlighted the importance of addressing human rights in the context of on-going discussions related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Council has repeatedly made available the results of its debates, studies and activities to the sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC. The outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development “The Future We Want” reaffirms the importance of human rights for achieving sustainable development.
Prior to this Conference, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized the responsibilities that all States have to ensure full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, on the one hand, and their human rights obligations on the other, in an open letter to all Permanent Missions in New York and in Geneva. The Office also submitted key messages for the Conference. The negotiation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provided further opportunities to advocate integration of human rights within the framework of international efforts to promote sustainable development; however, the most critical negotiation, to date, on the subject of climate change, that of a legally binding agreement to limit climate change, is that of COP21 of the UNFCCC (December 2015).
With an eye toward this discussion, OHCHR and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice co-hosted a Climate Justice Dialogue in Geneva on 9 February 2015. The dialogue brought together representatives of delegates to the UNFCCC and the HRC, experts, and key civil society actors to discuss human rights and climate change. One outcome of this meeting was the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action, a voluntary initiative led by Costa Rica and initially supported by 18 countries from diverse regions. In the pledge, which is still open and now has over 30 signatories, countries undertake to facilitate the sharing of best practices and knowledge between human rights and climate experts at a national level.
Outlining a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change
As the HRC has stressed, it is critical to apply a human rights-based approach to guide global policies and measures designed to address climate change. The essential attributes to a human rights-based approach are the following:
- As policies and programmes are formulated, the main objective should be to fulfil human rights.
- The rights-holders and their entitlements must be identified as well as the corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations in order to find ways to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to make their claims and of duty-bearers to meet their obligations.
- Principles and standards derived from international human rights law – especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core universal human rights treaties, should guide all policies and programming in all phases of the process.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Declaration on the Right to Development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Common Understanding of a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation and other instruments emphasize that human rights principles like universality and inalienability, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness, non-discrimination and equality, participation and inclusion, accountability, and the rule of law must guide development. They outline a conceptual framework for development that has international human rights standards at its centre and the ultimate objective of fulfilling all human rights for all. The rights-based approach analyses obligations, inequalities and vulnerabilities, and seeks to redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power. It anchors plans, policies and programmes in a system of rights, and corresponding obligations established by international law.
Human rights obligations apply to the goals and commitments of States in the area of climate change and require that climate actions should focus on protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. Human rights principles articulated in the Declaration on the Right to Development and other instruments call for such climate action to be both individual and collective and for it to benefit the most vulnerable. The UNFCCC further elaborates upon the need for equitable climate action calling for States to address climate change in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in order to benefit present and future generations.
Existing State commitments require international cooperation, including financial, technological and capacity-building support, to realise low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable development, while also rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Only by integrating human rights in climate actions and policies and empowering people to participate in policy formulation can States promote sustainability and ensure the accountability of all duty-bearers for their actions. This, in turn, will promote consistency, policy coherence and the enjoyment of all human rights. Such an approach should be part of any climate change adaptation or mitigation measures, such as the promotion of alternative energy sources, forest conservation or tree-planting projects, resettlement schemes and others. Affected individuals and communities must participate, without discrimination, in the design and implementation of these projects. States should cooperate to address the global effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights around the world in a manner that emphasizes climate justice and equity.
A human rights-based approach also calls for accountability and transparency. It is not only States that must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change but also businesses which have the responsibility to respect human rights and do no harm in the course of their activities. States should make their adaptation and mitigation plans publicly available, and be transparent in the manner in which such plans are developed and financed. Accurate and transparent measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and its impacts, including human rights impacts, will be essential for successful rights-based climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Because of the impacts of climate change on human rights, States must effectively address climate change in order to honour their commitment to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all. Since climate change mitigation and adaptation measures can have human rights impacts; all climate change-related actions must also respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights standards.
List of Human Rights Issues