Enforcing environmental and human rights in the EU: the golden opportunity of the EU Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative

Anna Triponel

September 17, 2021
The following captures remarks made by Anna Triponel at the hearing ‘Environmental Protection as a Prerequisite for Respect for Fundamental Rights’ convened by the European Economic and Social Committee on 17 September 2021.

Anna Triponel | 17 September 2021

Thank you for the opportunity today to join such an important, and timely, discussion.

My name is Anna Triponel, I’m a business and human rights advisor. I supported the development of the methodology underpinning human rights due diligence, reflected in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UNGPs), and I have been working with companies to support their ability to respect human rights since the UNGPs were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

A little less than two years ago, I created the ‘Business, People and Planet’ listserv to support the private sector in breaking down silos between their environmental, climate and human rights work. It has now attracted hundreds of subscribers, and I get calls every week from investors and companies on this topic – which demonstrates the strong desire from the private sector to better understand these connections.

Private sector of course has a significant impact on the environment:

  • By asking for clean energy, or providing it, as the case may be
  • By creating supply chains that are based on circular economy principles
  • By finding ways of safeguarding biodiversity
  • By creating sustainable food and transport systems.
  • And the list goes on

And conversely – if there are no guardrails on private sector activities, we stand no chance of protecting our planet.

As the report ‘Towards an EU Charter of the Fundamental Rights of Nature’ highlights, the law is paramount. The law demonstrates to companies what kind of business models are acceptable, and which are not. I’m a lawyer, previously qualified in 3 countries, but I think anyone can see here: the law is lagging severely behind.

Earth Overshoot Day this year was on 29th July. That means that since this day, for the whole of August, the whole of September, we have been consuming natural resources that the planet can not regenerate. And we have another 3.5 months to go. And this excess happens every year, and is getting worse.

As part of work led by Shift – an expert organisation on the UN Guiding Principles – we have convened conversations with human rights and environmental practitioners from a range of companies over the past 9 months.

I would like to highlight here three key findings:

  1. First, we see the upcoming EU legislation under the Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative as a golden opportunity
  • We know that companies operating today can no longer treat their climate, environmental and human rights risks in silos: there are too many interconnections between these areas for this approach to work.
  • And we know that we need companies to be empowered, equipped and incentivized to adopt a comprehensive sustainability approach to risks to people and to the planet.
  • With this new EU law that Marie Toussaint touched upon earlier, we have the opportunity to design a due diligence structure that works to do just that.
  1. Second, we need to build and amplify existing international standards and frameworks
  • The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UNGPs) provide a clear and authoritative reference point for what’s expected of companies when it comes to human rights due diligence.
  • And the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises echo the UNGPs’ expectations on human rights and extend the due diligence framework set out in the UNGPs to environmental impacts and risks
  • On the environmental side, and in contrast to the human rights side, there is no comprehensive body of international standards on the protection of the environment.
  • This again is a golden opportunity: As part of the Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative, EU regulators can define the adverse environmental impacts that companies should be assessing as part of their due diligence. They can also specify the key principles of environmental law that companies should have regard to in carrying out their due diligence (such as the precautionary principle).
  • If companies use individualised or sector-wide methodologies for environmental or human rights due diligence, this should only withstand scrutiny under the law if they fit within the parameters of internationally recognised frameworks.
  1. Third, we need to help the private sector consider and create the inter-connections between their environmental and human rights work which is too often siloed – and place greater emphasis on the protection of the planet and the human rights of the people of tomorrow
  • The timeframe for assessment of human rights impacts tends to be more immediate, with a focus on human rights impacts that could occur in the short- or medium-term.
  • Due diligence can also include longer-term impacts (e.g. from the future decommissioning of a project, or impacts from automation), however, capturing long-term human rights impacts can be a challenge because of limitations in predicting future activities and behaviours.
  • I personally think that taking a long-term view when identifying adverse human rights impacts the private sector could be connected to is paramount
  • We can’t stop at the impacts on people today. We have to pull the lens back to the impacts on people into the future – including future generations who are not yet here and able to advocate for their rights.
  • And now we come back full circle to the report’s findings. That the Rights of Nature encompass human rights in a ‘right relationship’” – with respect for people only being possible if it sits within respect for the planet.

Like all of you I’m sure, I found the IPCC’s sixth report absolutely chilling to read. The fact that what we are seeing today in terms of environmental and human rights impacts – forest fires, floods, biodiversity loss, temperature raises – will appear mellow to us in ten year’s time is mind-boggling.

The law is lagging behind, but we can each play a role to help it catch up before irreversible tipping points are reached.

Thank you – and I look forward to the discussion.

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