During the long awaited UN Climate Conference in Paris, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, said of our planet, “our home is on fire. And we are the arsonists.”
The arsonists—the rich nations, the biggest polluters—threatened those closest to the flames with more and more fire. They agreed to work towards putting out some of the fire—on condition the victims pay for most of the fire-fighting and repairs, and let the arsonists off the hook.
It might have been worse. The aspirational goal to control global warming might have stayed at 2°C above pre-industrial levels instead of the welcomed and celebrated move to 1.5°C. The negotiations might have collapsed. The United States and Saudi Arabia might have refused to agree to a deal. But indeed a deal was struck, and that is a good thing.
The Paris Agreement refers to “human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.” Albeit this is in the preamble only, and as obligations for Parties to “respect, promote and consider”—not drawing on existing legal obligations for states to respect, protect and fulfill. But this is the strongest human rights language in any global environmental agreement. Mother Earth and climate justice are also there, again only in the preamble, and described as being recognized by “some”. This is the first time climate justice has been in an international agreement. It was agreed that implementation shall reflect equity and the different responsibilities, capabilities and circumstances of nations—but the recognition of “historic responsibility” was removed. This means that those countries most responsible for having caused global warming have had no binding legal duty placed upon them to provide remedy.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of climate change’s impact on health, it is mentioned briefly in only three places in the agreement: once in the preamble as a right, and twice in the accompanying Decision, which recognizes health as a right and co-benefit of voluntary mitigation.
That the Agreement is better than it might have been is a tribute to the courageous leadership of the nations of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and Alliance of Small Island States who campaigned strongly for 1.5°C; the determination of the Least Developed Countries and G77-China bloc, despite the efforts of developed countries to divide the global South; the strong voices and analysis of the global South; the powerful coming together of indigenous peoples, science, and civil society—including the environmental, climate justice, and human rights movements, 1,700 health organizations, and many development and other nongovernmental organizations; and skillful diplomacy.
It should have been far, far better. An Agreement based on human rights would have had been stronger and with much greater protection for those most vulnerable.
Urgent implementation of a strong ambitious treaty would have ensured that many millions of people would be able to realize their rights to health and life itself. As Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, said in Paris, tens of thousands of people die each year from the present level of climate change and over seven million people die each year from air pollution, whereas climate change mitigation can benefit health. Adriano Campolina, ActionAid Chief Executive, said the Agreement “doesn’t go far enough to improve the fragile existence of millions around the world.”
The agreed upon path to achieving the ambitious goal is vague with weak mechanisms reliant on voluntary actions. If current pledges are met, global warming will still be 2.7°C or worse. Countries are now expected to—but not obligated—to update their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to be in line with the goal of 1.5°C , Although there will be some oversight, countries’ pledges to reduce emissions remain voluntary. Global South countries are doing more than their fair share to lower emissions. However rich nations protected themselves by ensuring their pledges to reduce emissions are not legally bound..
The Agreement recognizes the importance of addressing climate change loss and damage in developing countries, including the need to consider the displacement of people. But the United States insisted that the accompanying Decision specifically excludes liability or compensation for loss and damage.
There is a weak promise of extra money—the goal is $US100 billion annually between 2020 and 2025—to assist with mitigation and adaptation. Yet even the World Bank acknowledges trillions are needed.
The Agreement does not include the words “fossil fuels”, “oil” or “coal”. It does not include international aviation or shipping which are big sources of greenhouse gases. The global subsidization of fossil fuels at $5.3 trillion is more than total global spending on health. The promised $US100 billion to assist developing countries is less than what the world spends every week on fossil fuel subsidies. On the upside, the climate goals are a signal to investors to get out of fossil fuels—and divestment is one of the essential actions to protect the right to health for all.
The reliance on carbon markets and carbon offsets could cause serious harm to indigenous peoples and peasant farmers through loss of land and forests, while benefitting powerful business interests. Big business can also use trade and investment treaties, like the Trans Pacific Partnership, to undermine the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.
What happened is not climate justice. Nevertheless, as Mary Robinson, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, said, the Paris Agreement and Decision have the “potential to set in train the steps needed to protect people living in the most vulnerable situations” and provides opportunities for dealing with their shortcomings. “We have set the direction of travel in 2015 with this Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Together they send a strong message of hope that we can achieve a safer world with opportunity for all.”
Alison Blaiklock, MBChB, MPHTM is a public health physician and Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer, Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, New Zealand
Other contributions by Alison Blaiklock to Health and Human Rights