Tag Archives: UNFCCC

Human Rights in the context of the International Climate Change Agenda

Stefan Newton, Guest Contributor


Stefan Newton

In her address to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Mottley, abandoned a scripted speech and made a passionate appeal to United Nations (UN) Member states to make good on their commitments to climate change under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She urged States to accelerate mobilizing the necessary funding for climate adaptation and mitigation under The Green Climate Fund.

In thinly veiled remarks, she criticized the current position of the United States of America (USA) by refusing to acknowledge the reality of climate change, noting “For us it is about saving lives. For others it is about saving profits”. It is well known by now that the USA has regrettably withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement: which builds upon the UNFCCC and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

Moreover, the Prime Minister pointed to the need for UN Member States to recognize that “mighty or small we must protect each other in this world”. In closing her speech, she appealed to the international community to exercise empathy and care for those States and their citizens who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. I humbly submit that this is perhaps the most significant speech given by a Barbadian leader to the United Nations, as it impinges on Barbados’ very survival as a nation State. Indeed, if climate change ambitions are not met, Barbados and its citizens will face very certain demise due to the effects of climate change.

Climate Change is a Human Rights Problem

While climate change is most often viewed as an environmental problem, it is also very much a human rights problem. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described climate change as “probably the greatest human rights challenge of the 21st century”.

Explicit mention of human rights is now being made in international climate agreements. The Preamble to the Paris Agreement to the UNFCCC calls for all States, when acting to address climate change, to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”. The World Bank Report on Human Rights and Climate Change highlights the relevancy of international human rights law to climate change by linking particular social and human impacts of climate change to special human rights standards under international human rights treaties, thereby confirming human rights impacts. For example, the right to life is the most fundamental human right and well enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A number of observed and projected effects of climate change will pose direct and indirect threats to the human right to life. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects with high confidence an increase in people suffering from death, disease and injury from heat waves, floods, storms etc. Equally, climate change will affect the right to life through an increase in malnutrition, cardio- respiratory morbidity and mortality related climate change effects.

Despite the clear human rights implications of failure to act to combat climate change, the international community is not “grasping the baton firmly” enough through decisive policy actions to reach the ambitions of the climate change agenda. The USA- Trump led administration seems to be a lost cause with its view that climate change is a fiction. Heeding Prime Minister Mottley’s call to climate action will most likely be viewed by them as a mere courtesy, not an obligation. However, it can be soundly argued that Prime Minister Mottley’s urging of States to protect each other from the effects of climate change, are not merely aspirational or appeals to international consciousness, but are linked to and grounded in legally binding international human rights principles.

Legal Link between Human Rights and Climate Change

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has set out the essentials of the legal dimensions link between Human Rights and Climate Change. International Human Rights principles to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people without discrimination gives rise to a wide range of duties for State in acting on climate change. I will touch on three.

First, under these principles is the duty to mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts. Failure to take affirmative action to prevent human rights harms caused by climate change, including foreseeable long-term harms, breaches this obligation. Second is the duty to ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change. Falling under this duty States must ensure that appropriate adaptation measures are taken to protect and fulfil the rights of all persons, particularly those most endangered by the negative impacts of climate change e.g. small islands, riparian and low-lying coastal zones. Third, under core human rights treaties, States acting individually or collectively are obliged to mobilize and allocate the maximum available resources for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the advancement of civil and political rights and the right to development. The failure to adopt reasonable measures to mobilize available resources to prevent foreseeable climate change harm breaches this obligation.

Incorporating Human Rights into Climate Change Policy Discussions

Besides recognizing the legal implications of international human rights law as it pertains to climate change, Caribbean policy makers should also recognize the value added of incorporating human rights into discussions around climate change policy.

Among other things, a focus on human rights law may serve to locate policy within the framework of internationally agreed obligations and acceptance of certain goods, interests or goals as rights. This has the effect of establishing a hierarchy of importance among policy goals, helping to ensure that human rights are not traded off among interests lacking that status. Simply put, human rights place people before profits. This is critical as more firms and investors enter the Caribbean market whose activities may have climate and environmental impacts.

Additionally, human rights offer a normative and institutional framework for strengthened accountability and international co-operation for those responsible for adverse impacts of climate change. It may be argued that states should be encouraged to take climate action on this basis and do more in their capacity to assist and contribute to the financing of climate adaptation programs. This might be a useful bargaining chip in the realm of international relations and negotiations. For small developing states, such accountability can be used as a tool of moral suasion against large carbon emitting States like the USA which have retreated from global actions on climate change, or to spur States who are already implementing climate action targets to redouble their efforts.

Diagonal Environmental Rights

Further to policy, human rights law has an incredible potential to fill in a missing legal gap present in the international legal framework addressing climate change. The carbon emissions from large industrial States have a disproportionate impact on small lesser emitting States. Citizens of small developing States are thus marginalized and face aggravated vulnerability to human rights impacts from climate change. Yet currently there exists no formal legal mechanism for citizens to claim climate justice against large states responsible for impacting on and violating their human rights. This is referred to a Diagonal Environmental Rights; a term coined by John Knox the United Nations Independent on Human Rights relating to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. Without going into the theory of a State’s extra-territorial human rights obligations, and proving causation, I submit that the ability to claim climate justice is well founded in the principles of international law.

As previously stated, no formal international diagonal environmental rights legal mechanism exists. Given the state of geo- political madness that has taken hold of multilateralism, I also do not see one being created and implemented by UN Member States. As the experience of the Paris Agreement has shown, it is a challenge just to get a critical mass of countries- let alone all countries- to participate in an international environmental agreement.

Therefore, the greatest hope is that existing international human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR), and domestic courts are flexible enough to accommodate climate change litigation. There has been jurisprudence emerging from domestic courts that successfully incorporates rights-based arguments to climate change e.g. Pakistan in the case of Leghari v Federation of Pakistan.

Albeit these claims were made in the context of litigation by citizens against their own State for failing to respond to climate change. Nevertheless, such cases do much to add shape and contour to this emerging body of climate justice jurisprudence. They set precedents on which international, and broader litigation may find success.

Stefan Newton is a graduate of the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law.  The views reflected here are entirely his own.


COP23: Five Negotiation Priorities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Alicia Nicholls

In about a week’s time, delegates from over 190 countries will convene in Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). During this round of climate negotiations, which will last from November 6-17th, the parties will continue work on implementation guidelines for the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed at COP21 in December 2015.

Despite United States’ President Donald Trump’s statement in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, there is some cause for optimism that this year’s COP negotiations will bear fruit. For the first time, a small island developing state (SIDS), the Republic of Fiji, has assumed the presidency of COP and brings to this task first-hand experience from the front lines of the climate change battle.

Secondly, recent natural disasters worldwide have brought increased international attention to the devastating effects of climate change and the need for urgent action on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This point was well-made by President of Fiji, Mr. Frank Bainimarama, who stated at a Pre-COP Ministerial Meeting held on October 17 in Fiji that:

“We can no longer ignore this crisis. Whether it is fires in California, Portugal and Spain. Flooding in Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. The dramatic Arctic melt. Ice breaking off the continent of Antarctica. The recent hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and the southern United States. Or the hurricane that has just struck Ireland and Scotland – the tenth hurricane of the Atlantic season this year. It’s hard to find any part of the world that is unaffected by these events.”

Thirdly, except for the US, political will among the world’s most powerful nations has coalesced on the side of climate action. The 19 other G20 countries reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris Agreement, calling it “irreversible” in their Summit Declaration following the Hamburg meeting in July.

Below are five key likely priorities for SIDS as they go into the negotiations:

  1. Scaling up Climate Finance to SIDS

At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to jointly mobilise USD 100 billion annually by 2020 to meet the mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries. According to an OECD study, climate-related concessional finance has increased in both absolute terms and as a percentage of total concessional development finance, however annual commitments for 2014 were still 20% of the USD100 billion goal.

SIDS often find it difficult to attract private financial inflows for development purposes due to their small size and economies, and current financing levels do not meet their current needs. Moreover, current graduation criteria have made some middle and upper income SIDS, like those in the Caribbean, ineligible for certain types of concessional financing.

Pledged contributions, whether to the Green Climate Fund or otherwise, also do not necessarily always lead to timely disbursement, and there is the need for guidelines and protocols for incorporating the Adaptation Fund established at COP7 into the Paris Agreement’s framework.

Finding innovative and effective ways to attract and increase financial flows, including from both public and private and bilateral and multilateral sources, will be key. For example, Fiji became the first developing country to issue a sovereign green bond, with technical support from the World Bank, to support the country’s mitigation and adaptation efforts.

  1. Loss and damage

Loss and damage was one of the most contentious topics in the negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement and was strongly lobbied for by SIDS and LDCs as they are the least culpable but most vulnerable to the harshest impacts of climate change. The concept recognises that there is some irreversible damage which cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Paris Agreement has recognised the concept of ‘loss and damage’ as a distinct concept of climate action and has made the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage permanent. It, however, does not deal with liability or compensation, something which developed countries were adamant they did not wish to be included. The softer language used in Article 8, which, inter alia, itemises areas for cooperation and facilitation, is reflective of these developed country concerns.

The costliness of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is an important background against which SIDS should call for greater discussion on concretely addressing loss and damage, including the successful launch of the Clearing House for Risk Transfer which is slated to take place at COP23.

  1. Adaptation and Mitigation

Developed countries’ continued and increased support will be necessary to assist SIDS in implementing national climate action plans, policies and projects in order to build climate resilience. This support for adaptation and mitigation includes not just financial support, but technology transfer and capacity building and technical assistance.

Certain groups within societies are particularly vulnerable to climate change, including women and children, the disabled and indigenous and rural communities. As such, the COP23 negotiations will involve operationalizing the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platforms.

  1. More ambitious NDCs

Some 163 parties have already submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions which outline their emission reduction targets toward meeting the goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement of keeping average global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These NDCs may be found at the interim NDC registry.

However, the May 2016 synthesis report on the aggregate effect of INDCs showed that a higher level of ambition will be needed in order to reach the goal in Article 2.

SIDS will want all parties to communicate to more ambitious NDCs after 2018 in order to meet the temperature goals in the Agreement and in keeping with the Article 4(3) commitment of communicating successively progressive NDCs.

  1. Preparations for Facilitative Dialogue 2018

The Facilitative Dialogue which will take place in 2018 will be the first initial opportunity under the Paris Agreement to take stock of parties’ collective progress in a transparent manner towards meeting the Agreement’s long-term goal and inform the preparation of NDCs. It will be a precursor to the Global Stock Take, the first of which will take place in 2023 and will occur every five years thereafter.

The Facilitative Dialogue 2018 will be launched at COP23 and parties will need to organise and decide on the procedures, events and expected outcomes in time for its convening. The President of Fiji, who must be commended on his country’s excellent work on preparations for COP23 to date, has indicated that these talks will approached on the principle of ‘talanoa’, a Pacific concept which values inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.

A copy of the negotiating agenda for COP23 (current as at this date) may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.


A sustainable future for SIDS necessitates an ambitious outcome at COP21

Alicia Nicholls

Over the next two weeks (November 30 to December 11), leaders and delegates from over 190 countries are gathered in Paris, France for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the aim of achieving a legally binding multilateral agreement on climate change.

For small island developing states (SIDS), which are already suffering the adverse effects of climate change, the stakes are particularly high. The importance of climate change to the post 2015 development agenda has been reflected by its inclusion as Goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Failure to act on climate change has implications not just for the economies, societies and survival of SIDS, but will undermine their achievement of many of the sustainable development goals, including poverty reduction.


SIDS are not the only countries affected by climate change. However, while combined their contribution to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is minuscule, they are among the most vulnerable to the adverse manifestations of climate change. The geographical vulnerabilities of small states, such as their geographic location, small land masses, concentration of human settlements and major infrastructure along coastal and low-lying areas and dependence on limited industries, enhance their vulnerabilities to rising sea levels, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, more frequent and destructive weather events and changing precipitation patterns.

Several SIDS, including those of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), are already experiencing beach erosion, more devastating hurricanes, flooding and longer droughts. The situation is even direr in lowlying islands and atolls in the Pacific like Kiribati which face displacement of coastal communities because of rising sea levels.

Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change

Addressing climate change has been made part of the post-2015 development agenda. SDG 13 mandates states to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. The targets under goal 13 include strengthening resilience and adaptative capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters, integrating climate change measures in policy frameworks, improving education and awareness, promoting mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change planning in LDCs and SIDS and implementing developed countries’ commitment of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.

Climate change poses not only an existential threat to SIDS but also to their ability to meet sustainable development goals. Longer droughts as a result of changing precipitation patterns diminish crop yields and hurt livestock which in turn diminish the livelihoods of farmers and the families which depend on small plots of land for income and food. Low agricultural yields means reduced food production which has an impact on nutrition and food security, with implications for the achievement of SDG 2 – zero hunger. For subsistence farmers, income from surplus yields is used to finance household expenses and education of children. Loss of homes and livelihood from cyclones, droughts and floods has an impact on the eradication of poverty (SDG 1 – no poverty). In many poorer countries, women make up the majority of small farmers and are the ones required to fetch water for their families, highlighting the gendered impact of climate change which affects the achievement of SDG 5 – gender equality.

The oceans are the lifeblood of SIDS, whether through fisheries or as part of their tourism product. Ocean acidification due to oceanic uptake of CO2, warming seas and coral bleaching cause fish to migrate to more favourable waters resulting in lower fish yields and loss of aquatic biodiversity (SDG 14 – life below water). This in turn leads to loss of income for fishermen, glass bottom boat operators and entire coastal communities which depend on marine biodiversity and fish catches for food and income, again with implications for poverty reduction (SDG 1). Another alarming aspect of climate change is saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers which limits the availability of fresh water for human consumption, farming and other economic activities and will undermine the achievement of SDG6 – clean water and sanitation.

Speaking of the achievement of SDG9 – industry, innovation and infrastructure, the major economic drivers in SIDS tend to be tourism, agriculture, fisheries, which are climate sensitive industries. In Grenada an entire nutmeg harvest was devastated by Hurricane Ivan in 2005. Major infrastructure in many islands, such as hotels, road networks, electrical power plants and such, are concentrated along coastal areas which can become inundated by rising sea levels and destroyed by hurricanes.  Destruction or damage of these ports of entry impact on their ability to receive tourists, which is crippling for economies dependent on tourism.

Aside from these impacts on economic growth and sustainability, infrastructure and livelihood, the loss of human life is one of the greatest threats. One only needs to consider the devastation by Tropical Storm Erika in Dominica and the loss of life to see that the impact is indeed real. According to the Rapid Damage and Impact Assessment, the damage and loss has been estimated at US $483 million which is equivalent to 90 percent of Dominica’s GDP.

The scale of the problem

Climate change has been one foreign policy area on which CARICOM countries have been steadfastly united. They have participated keenly in climate change negotiations and have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) setting out their post-2020 country commitments. A taskforce on climate change was also established.

Previous attempts by the global community to achieve an internationally accepted binding agreement for the reduction of GHG emissions have left a lot to be desired. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and entered in force in 2005, is the first multilateral treaty requiring countries to cut their GHG emissions. However, the US, currently the second largest  emiter, never ratified the Agreement and China  (currently the largest emiter) and India, were exempted from the emission cuts because they were not major emiters during the period of industrialisation. Moreover, the emission cut targets of 5.2% under Kyoto are not enough.

The inertia of the world’s major emiters on substantially cutting emissions and on achieving an ambitious binding agreement so far on climate change has had devastating consequences. The World Meteorological Organisation reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide increased at their fastest rate for 30 years in 2013. Moreover, a World Bank scientific report published in 2012 found that the world is heading towards a temperature increase of 4 degrees celsius by the turn of the century if current emission levels remain. A recent report by the IPCC further reiterated this. Such an increase would be catastrophic for SIDS.

The current global position for emissions reduction is for limiting temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However, any long term temperature increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels will have a devastating impact on SIDS. As such, countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), including CARICOM, have been pushing the “1.5 to Stay Alive” campaign to raise awareness and support for cuts which will limit the increase to no more than 1.5 degrees.

Moreover, the current level of actual financing provided by developed nations to meet the adaptation needs of small states has been woefully inadequate.

CARICOM negotiating position

The Rt. Hon Dr. Kenny Anthony, Prime Minister of St. Lucia, has lead responsibility for climate change for CARICOM.

In a press conference given by Dr. Anthony, CARICOM’s negotiating position was articulated. It re-emphasises the position taken in the Community’s  Declaration for Climate Action issued pursuant to regular meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government in Barbados in July of this year. As stated by Dr. Anthony, CARICOM is advocating for:

the retention of the principal of special circumstances and unique vulnerability of SIDS;

five-year review cycles of green house gas emission reduction targets with the first review to take place prior to 2020, to allow for the adjustments necessary to achieve the goal of 1.5 degrees;

recognition of loss and damage (the irreversible, slow onset impacts of climate change to which it is not possible to adapt, example sea-level rise and ocean acidification) as a critical issue for SIDS and the development of a mechanism to address this element, treated separately from adaptation;

support for REDD+ (efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the sustainable management of forests);

adequate provisions for adaptation to help Caribbean countries reduce their vulnerability to effects of climate change and develop great climate resilience where possible; and

commitment by developed countries to take the lead in scaling up the provision of adequate, predictable and new sources of financing for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and for technology support.

The threat of climate change to the livelihoods, economies and very existence of SIDS cannot be understated. World leaders in their various statementsleading up to the conference have all recognised that COP 21 represents a critical development juncture where adaptative and corrective action can still be taken towards charting a new course towards a climate friendly sustainable future. However the window of opportunity for avoiding an environmentally catastrophic global temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius is closing.

A comprehensive, legally binding agreement with ambitious and substantive commitments on emissions reductions to reduce the global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels, which provides binding commitments for technology transfer, capacity building and adequate financial support for adaptation of SIDS and other vulnerable countries and communities to climate change and which recognises the vulnerability and differentiated responsibility of small states and LDCs will help reverse this. The hope of SIDS for a sustainable future depends on what action or inaction world leaders take over the next few days.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.