Key governments have rolled back their environmental commitments

Dr Annalisa Savaresi, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling

Kourosh Ziabari, Organization for Defending Victims of Violence

President Donald Trump

There has always been a tension between the pursuit of economic objectives and that of environmental objectives. Scientists have clearly identified action that needs to be undertaken. Dr Annalisa Savaresi explores the key issues in an interview with Kourosh Ziabari, for the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence.  

Climate change is a complex threat to life on Earth, driving countless shifts worldwide, and it is only through collective action on the individual, national, regional and international levels that it can be addressed meaningfully. The provision of food, fibre, fuel and freshwater, without which human society and its economy cannot survive, is jeopardized by the rising global temperature and record levels of land and freshwater exploitation.

The UN Secretary General António Guterres has termed climate change the “defining challenge of our time.” Some experts talk of climate change as a “threat multiplier” that even has the potential to increase the risk of political instability and terrorism. Climate change is materializing too quickly for the human beings and many species to adapt. Although pacts such as the Paris climate agreement have come into being to strengthen global action on the climate change conundrum and achieve zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century, some advocacy organizations are warning that the response to the climate change pandemic is lethargic and ineffective.

The Internal Organization for Migration predicts that by 2050, nearly 200 million people could be driven away from their home countries as a result of environmental changes. The economic burdens of climate change are colossal, too. Estimates by the Climate Vulnerability Monitor suggest global warming costs can amount to USD700 billion annually by 2030. In 2013, about 1.3 billion people lived in world regions that were “water scarce.” Researchers believe an added 8 percent of the world population would enter a state of “new or aggravated water scarcity” by 2100 on account of climate change.

Dr. Annalisa Savaresi is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Stirling. She is a renowned expert in climate governance and the interplay between human rights and climate change law, with 20 years of experience in working with international and nongovernmental organizations. She is also the Director for Europe of the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment.

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Dr. Savaresi to discuss the human rights implications of climate change, the importance of international cooperation in tackling global warming, and the successes and failures of world governments in living up to their obligations in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions as required by the Paris agreement.

Q: One of the upshots of global warming is the rise of sea levels, which is unfurling at the fastest pace in some 3,000 years. This phenomenon impacts the geopolitical realities of our world gravely. For example, the government of Indonesia announced last year that it would be moving its capital from Jakarta, since large areas of the city are sinking, and it is expected to be completely submerged by 2050. Even it is likely that the island nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Marshall Islands might disappear from the world map altogether. How do you think it is possible to combat these effects?

A: I am not a climate scientist, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already outlined the course of action on this. All that is really needed is supportive political will at the subnational and national level, where people vote and choose governments, to implement the recommendations provided by scientists.

Q: It is believed that addressing climate change can have significant positive effects on the global economy. A case in point is the use of natural environmental solutions, including restoring degraded forests, that creates 39 jobs per each million-dollar spent on these efforts. Are the world governments sufficiently aware of the importance of this fight on the economic landscape of their societies? Why is it that safeguarding the natural environment and battling climate change is not a priority for many governments?

A: There has always been a tension between the pursuit of economic objectives and that of environmental objectives. Sadly, the pandemic seems to have thrown a spanner in the wheels of government action everywhere. There have been worrisome developments, including the suspension of initiatives that had already been announced, such as low emission zones in the UK.

Q: Are the commitments world governments have made to cut greenhouse gas emissions and replace their sources of energy consumption adequate to achieve the emission levels stipulated by the Paris Agreement for the year 2030? Are we in a position to say efforts to retire traditional cars and introduce hybrid, electric vehicles or investment on renewable energies have been satisfactory?

A: The United Nations Environment Programme gap reports have consistently shown that sadly the level of ambition in plans [known as] nationally determined contributions or NDCs that states have submitted in the context of the Paris Agreement is insufficient to achieve the temperature goals envisioned by that treaty.

The EU has announced that it intends to increase its level of ambition for 2030, in the context of its green deal. The EU is furthermore developing measures to make it compulsory for businesses headquartered in Europe to comply and report with environmental due diligence standards, also in their overseas operations.

These are positive developments, but the EU should not remain alone in its efforts to increase its level of ambition.

Q: Biodiversity is one of the primary factors influencing the resilience of human communities against extreme weather episodes. Reports by scientists suggest at least one million animal species, including half of all amphibians, are susceptible to extinction as a result of global warming. By the middle of the present century, between 30 and 50 percent of all animal and plant species will have gone extinct. Are there pathways to slow down this process?

A: Again, the scientists have clearly identified action that needs to be undertaken. So, I hate to repeat myself but what we need is really political will at the national and subnational level in order to do what the scientists say we should be doing.

Q: Tell us about the human rights impacts of climate change and hyperthermia. It is known that, for instance, the quality of the air we inhale, the production of agricultural crops, infectious diseases and freshwater deposits aggravate as the Earth gets warmer and the global climate changes. But how far-reaching and destructive can these effects be? What are the human rights impacts of climate change which are mostly neglected?

A: I am not a natural scientist. However, the evidence is clear and is outlined in IPCC reports, as well as in the reports by numerous other UN bodies. Climate change threatens the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the right to life, adequate housing, water, food and the highest attainable standard of health.

Climate change has got direct and indirect effects on the enjoyment of the right to life. The IPCC has listed as the causes of climate-related deaths extreme weather events, heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, water-borne and vector-borne diseases, malnutrition and air pollution. For example, the World Health Organization predicts that climate change is expected to cause 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and heat stress.

The 2018 Human Rights Committee’s General Comment on the right to life says that environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.

Climate change mainly harms human health by exacerbating existing disease burdens and negative impacts on daily life among those with the weakest health protection systems, and with the least capacity to adapt. It also reduces the capacity of individuals and groups to adapt to climate change.

According to the IPCC, the major health impacts of climate change will include greater risk of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires; increased risk of under-nutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions; reduced labor productivity in vulnerable populations; and increased risks of food and water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases. It also states with high confidence that “throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change.”

Climate change affects all key elements of the rights to water and sanitation, namely availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality. Climate change has already affected precipitation patterns across the world, with some dry areas receiving less precipitation and wet areas receiving more frequent and intense precipitation. According to the IPCC, climate change over the 21st century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry, and energy production, affecting regional water, energy, and food security. Extreme weather events, such as cyclones and floods, affect water and sanitation infrastructure, leaving behind contaminated water and thus contributing to the spread of water-borne diseases. Sewage systems, especially in urban areas, will also be affected by climate change.

Similar to the right to water, climate change affects all key elements of the rights to food, including access, utilization, and price stability. The IPCC reports how changes in climate are already undermining the production of major crops, such as wheat, rice and maize. In the oceans, temperature changes, bleaching of coral reefs and ocean acidification are affecting fisheries. Climate change also exacerbates drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition, such as conflict and poverty. In 2007, the United Nations Development Program quoted a research finding according to which by 2080, the number of additional people at risk of hunger could reach 600 million.

Climate change has already had a sizable impact on the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing. The World Bank estimates that 1.3 billion people and USD158 trillion in assets are at risk from river and coastal floods alone. The IPCC also stressed that “good quality, affordable, well-located housing provides a strong base for city-wide climate change adaptation minimizing current exposure and loss.”

The impacts of climate change on urban and rural areas, including unplanned and unserviced settlements, on human mobility and on small islands and low-lying coastal zones were also analyzed by the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living in a report published in 2009. Both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur referred to the importance of suitable climate adaptation measures in order to protect the right to adequate housing.

Finally, climate change substantially contributes to human rights harms and related human movement. When people lack access to food, water and other necessities, in order to survive, they may attempt to move internally or across borders. The IPCC has identified the risks associated with impacts of climate change on migration and displacement. It estimates that at 2°C of warming, there is a potential for significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics. Entire small island states are at risk of becoming uninhabitable and according to UNEP, 4 million people, and around 70 percent of Arctic infrastructure, will be threatened by thawing permafrost by 2050. An OHCHR study on the slow-onset effects of climate change and human rights protection for cross-border migrants confirms that climate change-related cross-border movement is most likely to involve movements between developing countries.

Q: It is well documented that climate change is directly linked with poverty and that the warming of the Earth and extreme weather conditions result in repeated cycles of poverty, particularly in vulnerable and low-income communities. For instance, the United Nations Development Programme reported that more than 90 percent of climate change-related fatalities, numbering more than 60,000 annually, happen in the developing countries. How is it possible to help these communities safeguard themselves against such critical challenges?

A: I cannot emphasize enough how the right to vote is crucial in this connection. National and subnational governments are crucial and indeed the first port of call to protect their citizens against environmental harm and the impacts of climate change. So, having in government representatives that genuinely take to heart environmental concerns is crucial. Sadly, we have seen a number of key governments rolling back on environmental commitments all other the world in recent years. This is why people need to be reminded that the first and most important thing they should do is to vote and to bear environmental concerns in mind when they do so.

The other thing people can and should do is to hold their governments to account for their track record on climate action and environmental protection. For example, activists around the world have increasingly used human rights arguments to call for states to undertake greater efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to redress personal injury and property damage associated with the impacts of climate change.

Even though they do not in and of themselves pave the way to compensation, injunctions for halting emissions and the cessation of harmful activities, human rights complaint mechanisms have increasingly been used as a means to name and shame states. Human rights remedies perform a particularly important role, when no other remedies are available.

For example, in a complaint submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2019, Torres Strait Islanders have alleged that the effects of Australia’s insufficient plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its failure to fund coastal defenses constitute a violation of their human rights.

It is important to understand that complaints such as these do not necessarily lead to and are not aimed at delivering the award of compensation. They are rather intended to put pressure on states to take greater and better action to tackle climate change.

Q: How important is international cooperation in addressing climate change? Do you agree that imposing unilateral coercive measures on certain countries and cutting them off from global financial, banking and energy systems will curtail their ability to combat climate change?

A: The media have given a lot of visibility to international climate negotiations and their challenges, but this is somewhat misleading. International cooperation is there largely to facilitate coordination of action at the national level.

The Paris Agreement marked a shift in international climate governance by giving greater visibility and prominence to action at the national level. The Paris Agreement requires all of its state members, or so-called parties, to submit nationally determined contributions, known as NDCs. NDCs are plans detailing action that each party will take to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Revised, more ambitious NDCs are expected to be submitted in 2020 and every five years after then. NDCs represent the yardstick by which to assess state compliance with the Paris Agreement, and more generally, with progress to reach the goal to stay below 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature.

So, while the Paris Agreement provides an important framework for inter-state cooperation on a host of crucial matters, including finance, technology transfer and capacity-building, ultimately it is down to states to take action to reduce emissions and make adequate preparations to avert the adverse impacts of climate change at the national and subnational level.

NDCs have thus become a tool to scrutinize state action and commitments on climate change and assess compliance with human rights obligations under national and international law. Recent case law shows that national courts are increasingly using NDCs in this way.

Q: Under President Donald Trump, the United States withdrew from a number of international agreements and treaties, and the Paris climate agreement was one of the most important ones. Can the United States’ unilateralism turn out to be an obstacle on the way of international efforts to tackle climate change?

A: Sadly, the US has a long track record in undermining international cooperation on a number of environmental matters, for example biodiversity, and not only on climate change. The fact that these international cooperation endeavors have continued in spite of the US’ recalcitrance is encouraging. At the same time, it is undeniable that the US is a crucial actor and should contribute to international cooperation endeavors. We cannot but hope that the forthcoming elections in the US deliver an administration that is more sympathetic to environmental concerns and climate action.

This article first appeared on the website of the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, a Tehran-based NGO in Special Consultative Status to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), on 22 September 2020. Dr Annalisa Savaresi was interviewed by Kourosh Ziabari, a journalist, reporter and FCDO Chevening Scholar. 

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