Week of 15 March 2021
Address climate change impacts to meet the human rights responsibilities of business
Many companies and policymakers see their responsibilities towards mitigating climate change and addressing human rights impacts as two separate issues requiring distinct strategies and initiatives. In fact, as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) underscores in a new FAQ on the topic, the two responsibilities go hand in hand: in order to protect and respect human rights, we need to simultaneously address the ways in which climate change can harm people. OHCHR underscores that it advocates for urgent and ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as a rights-based approach to climate action.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a fact sheet of Frequently Asked Questions on Human Rights and Climate Change. The FAQ serves as a primer for business, policymakers, and others to understand links between climate change and human rights, and especially the ways in which climate change harms people and the ecosystems they rely on.
The FAQ answers 17 core questions on the linkages between climate and human rights, as follows:
- Which human rights are most affected by climate change? These include the right to life the right to self-determination, the right to development, the right to health, the right to food, the rights to water and sanitation, the right to adequate housing, and cultural rights
- Which groups and individuals are most affected by climate change? These include indigenous peoples, women, children, migrants and internally displaced persons and persons with disabilities
- Who are the rights holders and duty bearers in relation to climate change?
- What are the human rights obligations of States related to climate change? These include (i) mitigate climate change and prevent its negative human rights impacts, (ii) ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change, (iii) ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by climate change, (iv) mobilize maximum available resources for sustainable, human rights-based development, (v) cooperate with other States, (vi) ensure equity in climate action, (vii) guarantee that everyone enjoys the benefits of science and its applications, (viii) protect human rights from business harms, (ix) guarantee equality and non-discrimination and (x) ensure meaningful and informed participation
- What are the responsibilities of businesses related to human rights and climate change? (See below)
- Which key principles of international law apply to climate action in the context of human rights? These are equality and non-discrimination, transparency and inclusiveness, and the precautionary principle
- What is a human rights-based approach to climate change? (See below)
- What is the role of climate litigation in protecting human rights?
- What is the role of the Human Rights Council in addressing climate change?
- What is the role of the other United Nations human rights mechanisms in addressing climate change?
- What is the role of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Conference of the Parties in promoting rights-based climate action?
- What rights do future generations have in the face of climate change?
- How much global recognition of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment affect climate action?
- What efforts is the United Nations system making to promote and protect environmental human rights?
- What are States’ common but differentiated responsibilities related to climate change?
- What role does international cooperation and solidarity play in climate action?
- What steps should be taken going forward?
What are the responsibilities of business related to human rights and climate change?
We’ve summarised a few key points from the FAQ below:
- Responsibility to respect in the climate context: In line with the expectations set out by the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights in the context of climate change. Companies “should be accountable for their impacts on the climate and participate responsibly in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts with full respect for human rights.”
- Modes of involvement: OHCHR notes that examples of causation or contribution could include “the emission of greenhouse gases and toxic wastes, the contamination of air, water and soil, and deforestation – which adversely impact human life and health, ecosystems and biodiversity”, while examples of direct linkage could include “impacts caused by the greenhouse gas and toxic waste emissions of the entire related value chain.”
- Governance and management of human rights impacts of climate change: Companies should “have in place a policy that clearly states their commitment to respect human rights, including by mitigating climate change and the specific measures that will be taken in this regard.” They should also undertake human rights due diligence and “carrying out social and environmental impact assessments should be an integral part of this.” Finally, businesses should “have in place processes to enable the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts that they cause or to which they contribute, including through their direct or indirect emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic waste.”
- Using leverage and partnering for collective action: States have a duty to “raise the bar and incentivize better business environmental performance.” At the same time, there is an opportunity for companies to work with governments and other stakeholders to advance protection of people in the context of climate change, “for example in the context of multi-stakeholder initiatives, present potentially constructive ways to shape collective responses to climate change.”
What is a human rights-based approach to climate change?
We’ve summarised a few key points from the FAQ below:
- The OHCHR highlights what it means to integrate a human rights-based approach in any climate change adaptation or mitigation measure. Specifically, “[a]ffected individuals and communities should be allowed to participate, without discrimination, in the design, implementation and leadership of these projects. They must have access to due process and to remedy if their rights are violated.”
- “A rights-based approach to climate change demands climate justice, equity, respect for human rights, and international cooperation and solidarity. Faced with climate change, persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations must have their rights protected, have access to measures of adaptation and resilience and receive the support of the international community. A rights-based response should also maximize inclusion, participation and equality.”
For further insights on the merging paths of climate action and human rights, we also highlight this recent piece by Amol Mehra, Director of Industry Transformation, and Ilan Vuddamalay, Senior Programme Manager for Labour Rights, both of the Laudes Foundation: “OPINION: Climate justice and human rights movements must go hand-in-hand,” Thomson Reuters Foundation (16 March 2021).
Amol Mehra, Director of Industry Transformation, and Ilan Vuddamalay, Senior Programme Manager for Labour Rights, Laudes Foundation, “OPINION: Climate justice and human rights movements must go hand-in-hand,” Thomson Reuters Foundation (16 March 2021).