New UN Report Details Link between Climate Change and Human Rights

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.”

Download the full report here.

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