Rights-based climate action to prevent human rights impacts

Anna Triponel

February 1, 2021

We can’t take effective action on climate change without protecting human rights, and vice versa. The international community is increasingly recognising the ways in which human rights laws and principles hold States and business to account for their climate impacts. A new brief by the OHCHR drives this point home by aligning the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights with climate action and setting out actions to address climate-related human rights impacts, including advancing climate action, guaranteeing access to information and publicly reporting on climate and human rights, ensuring stakeholder consultation, protecting human rights and environmental defenders and supporting a just transition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) outlines its key messages for business on respecting human rights and taking action on climate in its brief on Human Rights, Climate Change and Business. In short, the bottom line for business is that climate change and human rights are inextricably linked. Companies have a responsibility to mitigate their adverse impacts on both people and the environment, and it is increasingly apparent that we need solutions that recognise this interlinkage.

This matters more than ever when we take into account how much the world still needs to advance to meet our climate goals and in the context of a rise in climate-related human rights litigation against companies. As a key example, this week a Dutch appeals court found oil company Royal Dutch Shell liable for harm to Nigerian citizens caused by oil spills in the Niger Delta. The case is poised to set a new precedent for holding foreign parent companies accountable in their home countries for climate-related human rights harms occurring abroad.

What does climate change have to do with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)?

  • The OHCHR brief declares that “[a]ny legal or policy responses to the human rights implications of climate change that involve business should be aligned with the UNGPs as well as with relevant international standards and their current interpretation.”
  • Under Pillar I (the State duty to protect human rights), States must:
  • “Protect against climate change-related human rights abuse by business”
  • “Adopt a smart mix of measures’ to make business respect human rights in the context of climate change”
  • “Address the State/business nexus” (i.e. the responsibility of governments to ensure that human rights are protected from impacts by State-owned enterprises, such as through public procurement)
  • “Ensure policy coherence” with other commitments on human rights and climate, such as those made under National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights and Nationally Determined Contributions under the UNFCCC
  • Under Pillar II (the business responsibility to respect human rights), companies should:
  • “Respect human rights in the context of climate change,” meaning “that they should avoid infringing on human rights by taking proactive steps to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse impacts with which they are involved, including impacts resulting from climate change”
  • “Go beyond legal compliance” to respect human rights in line with international law, even where domestic laws on human rights and climate fall short
  • “Conduct human rights due diligence to identify, prevent and mitigate climate-related human rights impacts,” including identifying and assessing human rights risks and impacts from climate change, integrating the findings and taking action to prevent and mitigate impacts (and using leverage to influence others to do the same), tracking the effectiveness of their response, and communicating their performance and efforts.
  • “Ensure policy coherence throughout business activities,” for example accounting for human rights in the “climate change dimensions of policies and procedures that set financial and other performance incentives for personnel; procurement practices; and lobbying activities where climate change-related human rights issues are implicated.”
  • Under Pillar III (Access to remedy), people negatively impacted by climate change “must have access to effective remedies.” States must ensure effective judicial and non-judicial remedies for harms, and businesses “must address the climate-related human rights harms with which they are involved,”g. through operational-level grievance mechanisms, participation and support for legal and non-legal tribunals, and providing or contributing to remedy, “particularly where businesses have contributed to severe impacts (such as large businesses involved in the generation of electricity and heat, transportation, industrial agriculture, and other high emitting sectors.”

What should companies do to ensure respect for human rights in the context of climate change?

The OHCHR brief sets out eight actions for governments and business:

  1. “Prevent climate-related human rights harms through enhanced ambition for rights-based climate action”: The OHCHR points out that “[p]revention starts with reducing and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.” Businesses should set science-based targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
  2. “Guarantee access to information and transparency including through climate disclosure and reporting processes” by accurately and publicly disclosing their climate impacts.
  3. “Ensure transparency and align lobbying activities related to carbon-intensive activities with the responsibility to respect human rights”: In addition to public disclosure, companies “should refrain from supporting public information campaigns based on inaccurate, misleading and unfounded assertions which harm the ability of States and the public to make informed decisions regarding climate change.”
  4. “Ensure meaningful, informed and effective public participation in climate related decisions and actions,” including “conduct[ing] appropriate and adequate consultation on their own decisions and actions likely to have climate-related human rights impacts.” This includes actions like ensuring indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent when taking climate mitigation actions.
  5. “Protect environmental human rights defenders and civic space.” Defenders are “essential allies in climate action.”
  6. “Ensure the right of all persons to benefit from science and its applications.”
  7. “Ensure policy coherence and support a just transition to a decarbonized and climate resilient economy”: Businesses should contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and work to ensure decent work, protect livelihoods and stop activities with a negative climate-related impact on human rights.
  8. “Ensure justice and equity in climate action” by seeking to protect the rights of vulnerable populations and highly affected regions when taking action on climate change.

Read the full brief here: OHCHR, Human Rights, Climate Change and Business (January 2021).

“Climate change directly and indirectly interferes with the enjoyment of all human rights, including the rights to life, housing, water and sanitation, food, health, development, security of person and an adequate standard of living. Furthermore, the impacts of climate change exacerbate inequalities disproportionately affecting persons, groups and peoples already in vulnerable situations including children, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities. Effective responses to prevent, mitigate, and adapt to climate change must be anchored in international human rights and environmental standards and principles such as solidarity, cooperation, transparency, access to information, participation, equality, equity, accountability and the polluter pays and precautionary principles.”                        

OHCHR, Human Rights, Climate Change and Business (January 2021)

You may also be interested in

This week’s latest resources, articles and summaries.