COP21 SERIES: Free trade undermines our right to health and the fight against climate change

TPPA protests in Auckland, New Zealand (photo courtesy of Rhys Jones)
TPPA protests in Auckland, New Zealand (photo courtesy of Rhys Jones)

Alexia Fourage

Climate change threatens the right to health. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is already responsible for approximately 150,000 deaths every year.1 It also worsens environmental conditions, contributing to poorer health, nutrition, and water quality. Although natural disasters can strike anywhere, 95% of the deaths caused by them occur in the global South.2 For example, on November 8, 2013, typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc in the Philippines archipelago, killing thousands of people and affecting millions more.3 Acres upon acres of cultivated land were destroyed, leaving the population without livelihood, food, and their main source of income.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that if no change occurs in CO2 emissions, low lying countries will be more and more affected by extreme weather.4 It also predicts that progress made in the fight against hunger will be reversed by the damage caused by climate change: studies show that in 2050 an additional 49 million people will suffer from hunger, with young children in developing countries most at risk.5 By 2050, the UN estimates the number of people living in extreme poverty will reach 3 billion and there could be as many as 200 million climate change refugees.6

It is only by taking coordinated action against climate change that these scenarios can be averted. If nothing is done, millions of people will have their right to health compromised.

So although it is time to fight climate change, there are structural issues within our economic systems that prevent us from waging an effective war against climate change. Free trade is one of those structural issues.

The European Union, through free trade agreements with the countries of the South, enables multinational organizations to increase their exports and presence in new markets.7 The free trade agreements enable these organizations to move to countries where labor is cheap and resources (wood, minerals, land, water) plentiful and accessible.8 This results in deforestation, intensive agriculture, mining or depletion of the ground water. Too often there are insufficient laws and regulations to stop multinationals from destroying resources on a large scale.9 For example, it has been reported that when Coca-Cola established itself in the village of Plachimada in India, the local water supply was pumped at a rate of 1.5 million liters per day, drying out the groundwater.10 In the Philippines, large-scale mining has resulted in deforestation of millions of acres and caused air and river pollution.11 This abuse of the natural environment, and the resulting pollution, increases CO2 emissions and contributes further to climate change and conflict.12 There are reports from the Philippines that conflicts over mining have been associated with the deaths of 42 environmental and rights defenders since 2002.13

These are all examples of the people of the South being the first victims of climate change with the least resources to adapt. To fight climate change is to put in place a fair and sustainable society—which values respect for ecological systems, local production and consumption systems, renewable energy, co-operation between citizens to share and distribute resources.

Free trade agreements produce the opposite. Our economic system favors international division of production systems, increases international exchange and further stimulates dependency on fossil fuels.14 The “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) mechanism inhibits the implementation of policies on energy transition and ecology because it allows companies to sue governments in private international tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for public interest policies that allegedly limit their profits.15 The rights of investors in multinational organizations trump the needs of the environment and the human rights of people living in vulnerable situations.

The European Union lacks coherency in its policies and discourse about climate change versus free trade. It sets lofty goals for COP21 and the fight against climate change but at the same time it is concluding free trade agreements with as many countries as possible, opening up markets and increasing vulnerability to climate change impacts.16

Now is the time for those addressing climate change to join forces with those fighting free trade agreements—pressure on governments from a combined social movement has a greater chance to secure an equitable future for all people.


Alexia Fouarge is working as Climate Change Policy and Campaign Officer at Médecine pour le Tiers Monde (M3M), a Belgian NGO.



1 WHO, Climate Change, Available at: Accessed on 13 October 2015

2 IRIN, Changement climaique: Catastrophes naturelles records en 2011; Available at: records-en-2011. Accessed on 13 October 2015

3 De Ceukelaire W., Les Philippines et le typhon Haiyan: Une catastrophe en cache une autre; Available at: Accessed on 13 October 2015

4 GIEC, Changements climatiques 2014: impacts, adaptation et vulnérabilité’: le GIEC tire la sonnette d’alarme; Available at: du-giec/2014-impacts-adaptation-et-vulnerabilite/. Accessed on 13 October 2015

5 OXFAM Risk of reversal in progress on world hunger as climate change threatens food security, Available at: change-food-security-310314-en.pdf. Accessed on 13 October 2015

6 The Guardian, 2014, Environmental threats could push billions into extreme poverty, warns UN; Available at: Accessed on 13 October 2015; Boughriet, R., 250 millions de ”réfugiés climatiques” d’ici 2050, selon l’ONU Available at: poznan_deplacement_250_millions_personnes_6378.php4. Accessed on 13 October 2015

7 European Commission, Mémo, Available at: november/tradoc_150129.pdf, Accessed on 21 June 2015

8 Global Issues, Corporations and worker rights. Available at: article/57/corporations-and-workers-rights”, Accessed on 21 June 2015; Human Rights Watch, Environment, Accessed on 21 October 2015

9 Facing Finance, Dirty Profits II, Available at:, Accessed on 21 October 2015

10 Mathews, R., La lutte de Plachimada contre Coca-cola Available at: fr/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8911.html. Accessed on 13 October 2015

11 UNDP, Environmental Justice in the Philippines, Available at: content/undp/en/home/ourwork/democraticgovernance/projects_and_initiatives/environmentaljustice- philippines.html. Accessed on 21 October 2015

12 European Commission, Cause of climate change Available at change/causes/index_en.htm, Accessed on 21 October 2015

13 Global Witness, How many more? Available at: campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/ Accessed on 21 October 2015

14 Attac France, Climat ou Tafta, il faut choisir Available at: notes-et-rapports-37/article/climat-ou-tafta-il-faut-choisir

15 Corporate Europe Observatory, TTIP: debunking the business propaganda over investor rights, Available at: propaganda-over-investor-rights

16 Commission Europeenne, Objectifs pour 2030 en matière de climat et d’énergie en faveur d’une économie de l’UE compétitive, sûre et à faibles émissions de carbone, Available at: http:// Accessed on 21 October 2015