Today the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted less than a year ago at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, enters into force.
The purpose of this first global, legally binding instrument is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change and to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
At the time of writing 192 states have signed and 97 have ratified the Agreement.
The swift entry into force must now bode for the urgent, accelerated implementation of climate action. States must accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future, and adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change.
Every part of society must be mobilized to reduce emissions and help communities adapt to the inevitable climate impacts. Whereas the primary legal responsibility rests with States and enterprises, all people, individually and through the associations that they form, share the moral duty to avert climate change.
The Agreement calls on States to operationalise the obligations under the Agreement and to increase cooperation with other States. It calls for sufficient financial flows, new technology and enhanced capacity-building to support action by developing countries. And it calls for enhanced transparency of actions taken.
At the Marrakech Climate Conference (COP 22) in Morocco later this month (7 to 18 November) countries will convene the first Meeting of the Parties to the Agreement.
The Paris Agreement and human rights
A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights and the exercise of human rights helps to ensure a healthy environment.
Yet the Paris Agreement refers to human rights in one sentence only:
“Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”
Placed in the Agreement’s Preamble and not in its operative text, this is merely a weak recognition of the human rights dimensions of climate change. It does not guide States on how to take climate action while respecting and protecting human rights. The relationship between climate actions and human rights protection remains unresolved.
Climate change threatens the enjoyment of a vast range of human rights, including, but not limited to, the right to life, the rights to health, water, food, a clean environment, and other social, economic and cultural rights, and the rights of children, women, minorities and indigenous peoples. International law entails obligations to act cooperatively to protect and advance these human rights, including in the context of climate change and its effects on people’s ability to exercise such rights.
Climate change is inherently discriminatory, harming most those who have contributed least to the problem.
Indigenous peoples deserve special attention, as many indigenous communities live subsistence lifestyles that are severely disrupted by the effects of climate change. Climate decisions and actions will be “wrong” if they reduce greenhouse gas emissions but, while doing so, pose threats to the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities, and adversely impact the ecosystems. Such decisions and actions will do more harm than good and not provide reliable, long-term solutions to climate change.
Not too late
Governments and civil society should strive to give more substance to the Paris Agreement’s reference to human rights at future meetings of State Parties to the Paris Agreement. They should define how States must minimise the harm to human and other forms of life and to the exercise of human rights when taking actions to tackle climate change or to adapt to such change.
This includes guarantees of public access to information about the climate effects of policies, projects and practices and public participation in relevant decision-making. Individuals and NGOs should have a right to be consulted and to promote compliance of climate actions with international human rights standards.
Besides, more studies are needed to understand and engage with the poorly understood but critically important connections between human rights and the environment.