The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has stated that:
“our human rights are intertwined with the environment in which we live. Environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of human rights, and the exercise of human rights helps to protect the environment and to promote sustainable development.”
The impact of an unhealthy environment on the enjoyment of human rights can be huge. The UN has noted that annually more than 2 million deaths and billions of cases of diseases can be attributed to pollution alone. In the Bangladeshi city of Chittangong, for example, the ship-breaking industry, while disassembling ships into pieces, releases toxic products to the environment, impacting on the health of local communities. Gas exploration in the Argentinian province of Neuquén has reportedly negative impacts on drinking water for the local population that depends on it.+ Read more
Key instruments in the field of human rights and the environmental include the core human rights instruments, but also specific instruments including:
- the Stockholm Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972),
- the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes (1989),
- the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992),
- the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992),
- the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), and
- the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001).
In 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment published the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment which brings together for the first time in one document human rights obligations relating to the environment drawn from a range of treaties and binding decisions, as well as statements of human rights bodies that have the authority to interpret human rights law but not necessarily to issue binding decisions.
Environmental rights are enshrined in over 100 constitutions and most countries around the world have legislation in relation to environmental impact assessment (EIA) of proposed projects and policies that may have a negative consequence to the environment.
Human rights and the environment cannot be discussed without a particular focus on climate change. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human rights of our generation, posing a serious risk to the fundamental rights to life, health, food and an adequate standard of living of individuals and communities across the world. The effects of climate change impacts disproportionately to the poorest and most vulnerable. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has a number of goals tied directly to the environment and includes Goal 13 on Climate Action.
The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the Philippines, for instance, the Commission on Human Rights is investigating whether the collective contribution to global warming by 47 coal, cement, oil and gas companies has violated Filipinos’ basic rights to life, water, food, sanitation, adequate housing and self-determination. The companies under investigation include some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, Rio Tinto and Total.
Instruments developed to address climate change include:
- the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985);
- the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987),
- the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992),
- the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and
- the Paris Agreement (2016).
In terms of climate change in particular, The UN Framework Convention is the most important instrument in the field. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement linked to the Convention, commits its Parties by setting internationally binding emissions reduction targets, while the Paris Agreement, also linked to the Convention, requires all Parties to put forward their best efforts through nationally determined contributions, and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. This includes requirements that all Parties report regularly on their emissions and on their implementation efforts. The Paris Agreement was the first climate change instrument to explicitly recognise human rights. The preamble acknowledges that climate change is a common concern of humankind and that parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Environmental and Sustainable Business Commission, a two-year initiative drew upon the expertise of global private sector and civil society leaders, that was created to make the business case for the Sustainable Development Goals, stated in 2016 that:
(Click for more information on the Sustainable Development Goals)
“the faster a critical mass of company leaders decide to line up their business objectives with the Global Goals and make their sectors more sustainable, the more business there will be for everyone in a more predictable, prosperous, peaceful world. Reduced environmental stress will reduce political uncertainty, lowering business risks and multiplying returns on investment.
If environmental indicators don’t improve in the next 5-15 years, what’s most likely is a strengthening popular backlash against business and increasingly drastic regulatory responses from governments.”
“businesses should comply with all applicable environmental laws, issue clear policy commitments to meet their responsibility to respect human rights through environmental protection, implement human rights due diligence processes (including human rights impact assessments) to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their environmental impacts on human rights, and enable the remediation of any adverse environmental human rights impacts they cause or to which they contribute”.
Several UN agencies are calling upon the private sector to move beyond a culture of basic compliance to one where the business community champions the rights of everyone to a clean and healthy environment. The United Nations Environment Programme in particular has committed to assist businesses to better understand what their environmental rights obligations are and provide guidance on how to transition from compliance to championing environmental rights.
Various measures have been approved at different forums in order to tackle environmental protection and to develop systems to manage the environment. The Water Tool, designed by the World Bank in 2007, helps companies map their water use, including risks associated with water use in global supply chains. The International Finance Corporation has also developed in 2012 its Performance Standard 1: Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks and Impacts.
Additionally, a great number of multi-stakeholder initiatives have been adopted to reduce greenhouse gases emissions and to transition to a green economy worldwide. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a global effort that unites governments, civil society and private sector, committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate in next few decades by reducing short-lived climate pollutants across sectors. In 2002 the Partnership for Clean Fuel and Vehicles was established bringing together 72 organisations representing developed and developing countries, the fuel and vehicle industries, civil society, and leading world experts on cleaner fuels and vehicles.
Examples of government initiatives include the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action that includes more than 30 countries. The initiative reiterates the importance of addressing the human rights implications of climate change and emphasises that human rights should inform climate processes. At the national level, Guatemala adopted in 2013 the Climate Change Framework Law to prevent, plan for and respond to the impacts of climate change in the country. In 2013 Jordan published its National Climate Change Policy, which assesses the impacts from climate change on Jordan and recommends a number of mitigation and adaptation measures.
Companies have also been proactive in the issues of environmental protection and climate change. The Coca Cola Company has adopted Supplier Guiding Principles, which include compliance with all applicable local and national environmental laws. Brazilian Petrochemical Braskem for example has been producing “green plastic” since 2010 when the company developed the technology to produce plastic resins from sugarcane. Exxon has partnered with General Electric, Schlumberger, and Toyota through Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project to research low-emission, high-efficiency, and scalable technology that could diversify future energy options.
A 2014 McKinsey study found that 44 percent of sustainable business leaders cite growth and new business opportunities as reasons for tackling sustainability challenges.
Several sectorial organisations have also developed tools in order to address negative impacts to the environment. IPIECA developed in 2016 a Guidance document for the oil and gas industry on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (BES) fundamentals, which contains six interlinked management practices. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s Principle 1 states that the global beef value chain manages natural resources responsibly and enhances ecosystem health. Another good example is the ISO 14000 Standard on Environmental Management System, which provides businesses with a number of tools to assist in their environmental management systems. The Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines includes a section on environmental reporting for corporations, having sets of indicators and sub-indicators that help guide the reporting process.
- Climate Liability News, Philippines Climate Case Could Find Fossil Fuel Companies Violate Human Rights, 2017:https://www.climateliabilitynews.org/2017/10/05/philippines-climate-change-human-rights/Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures, Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, 2018: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/FrameworkPrinciplesUserFriendlyVersion.pdf
- United Nations Environmental Programme, Towards a pollution-free planet, Report of the Executive Director, 2017: http://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22251/k1708347e.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
- Business and Sustainable Development Commission, Better Business, Better World, 2016:
- IPIECA, Biodiversity and ecosystem services fundamentals. Guidance document for the oil and gas industry, 2016: http://www.ipieca.org/resources/good-practice/biodiversity-and-ecosystem-services-fundamentals/
- Environmental Protection Agency, Global Emissions by Economic Sector, 2014:
- International Finance Corporation, Performance Standard 1, Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks and Impacts, 2012: http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/3be1a68049a78dc8b7e4f7a8c6a8312a/PS1_English_2012.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
- UN, Declaration of the UN Conference on Human Development, Stockholm Declaration, 1972,http://www.un-documents.net/unchedec.htm
- International Council on Mining and Metals, A practical guide to catchment-based water management for the mining and metals industry: https://www.icmm.com/website/publications/pdfs/water/practical-guide-catchment-based-water-management_en
- BSR, Adapting to Climate Change, A Guide for the Energy and Utility Industry:
- Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, Principles and Criteria: https://grsbeef.org/Resources/Documents/GRSB%20Principles%20and%20Criteria%20for%20Global%20Sustainable%20Beef_091514.pdf
- UN Global Compact, Business Solutions for sustainable development, Case Examples from Global Compact LEAD companies:
- CEO Water Mandate:
- Geneva Pledge for Human Rights on Climate Action: http://climaterights.org/our-work/unfccc/geneva-pledge/
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Key Message on Human Rights and Climate Change: