A human rights approach to climate action. A sustainable, people-centred pathway forward.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, what is the “greatest threat to human rights”?  Many of us would assume this statement concerned armed conflict or authoritarian regimes, but it did not. The unrivalled threat the Commissioner referred to was climate change.

While human rights may not immediately spring to mind when we think about climate change, the two are inextricably linked. Changes to the environment, weather and natural resources directly and indirectly threaten the enjoyment of basic rights such as the right to food security, water and sanitation, health, housing, development, an adequate standard of living, self-determination, and fundamentally, the right to life.

We have already seen the emergence of ‘climate refugees’ as islands in the Pacific become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, and an exacerbation of global hunger due to degradation of arable land and changing environments.  A recent study led by Monash University found that there are more than 5 million extra deaths a year due to excessively hot or cold conditions as a result of climate change, and warns that this mortality figure will only worsen.

Worryingly, a major indirect impact of climate change is an increased risk of armed conflict. The UN estimates that 40 percent of civil wars since the 1950s have been associated with the scarcity of natural resources. This is likely to intensify as environments continue to degrade. In the Sahel region of Africa for instance, the degradation of land has led to groups competing for increasingly limited resources – amplifying ethnic tensions, violence and political instability, and jeopardising human rights.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sent shockwaves across the globe earlier this month as it laid bare the extreme environmental impacts that will ensue if climate trends persist. The report makes it clear that while some changes are already irreversible, ‘net zero’ carbon emissions must be achieved by 2050 to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change becoming a reality.

This goal cannot be achieved without ambitious and sustained action by business. The report states that “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the global climate system since pre-industrial times,” pointing to the significant contribution of industry to the warming of the atmosphere, ocean and land.

In 2015, the global community came together to recognise that businesses, as both economic and social actors, have human rights responsibilities and must be accountable for their human rights impacts. This includes participating responsibly in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts with full respect for human rights. Increasingly, investors and consumers agree.

If businesses fail to act in response to the impacts of climate change on the environment and human rights, there is likely to be a cascade of adverse outcomes for individual companies and the broader economy. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events and agricultural changes are set to further disrupt supply chains, economic output and productivity, while forced displacement will disrupt workforces and consumer behaviour.

But businesses must put people at the centre of their responses. When human rights are not fully considered, action to protect climate can itself have adverse consequences for people’s rights. The emerging ‘green sector’ provides current examples.

Research by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has revealed renewable energy projects have been the subject of almost 200 allegations of human rights abuses since 2010. The abuses include dangerous working conditions, threats and intimidation towards workers, harm to Indigenous Peoples’ lives and livelihoods, and even killings. In other cases, biofuel production has been associated with water pollution, water insecurity and land rights abuses.

So, what should businesses do? The key is to adopt a human rights approach to climate action responses, rather than having them exist in silos.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) provide a helpful guide for businesses to prevent and address negative human rights impacts associated with their business activities, including climate change mitigation related actions.

The UNGPs require businesses to conduct due diligence throughout their operations and supply chains. This starts with identifying areas of potential impact by listening to affected stakeholders in order to prioritise the most severe risks and remediate them.

For multinationals, a focus on the basic human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination may involve ensuring that climate actions benefit and reduce inequalities for the most vulnerable. This would be the people and communities worst affected by climate change, such as women, children, migrant communities, Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.

The case for action is clear, and a human rights approach to climate action offers businesses a sustainable, people-centred pathway forward.


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