Climate change, human rights and the responsibility of corporations

2023 / 9 / 25 | Author: enw_editor

The universally accepted link between climate change and human rights

In December 2019, an environmental NGO and 886 citizens in the Netherlands prevailed in a lawsuit against the Dutch government to raise its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. At the time, the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision was Article 2 (right to life) and Article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. In July of the following year, the UN General Assembly adopted a similar resolution with 161 votes in favor and 8 abstentions. Japan, which had abstained in 2021, voted in favor of the UN General Assembly’s resolution in spite of making an arguably pessimistic comment that the scope and substance of this right were not clearly defined.

Meanwhile, the perception that climate change is a human rights issue has already become common sense within the international community. This is plain for all to see, except for those looking at it through a distorted lens.

Climate change and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Every year, climate change causes wildfires and heat waves that result in the loss of many lives around the world. The disaster that struck Hawaii this summer is an example that is still raw in our memory. To Japan, this climate impact was not just some fire on the opposite shore. The water storage rate of dams in the Tokyo metropolitan area was reported to have dropped as well. Access to water is also a human right.

In June, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights released an Information Note on Climate Change and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

This report explains that while the Guiding Principles do not explicitly mention climate change, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights referenced in Guiding Principle 12 have been interpreted “in a manner consistent with international environmental and climate law” since the Guiding Principles were adopted in 2011. The report goes on to highlight that it is clear that business enterprises have responsibilities when it comes to the impacts of climate change on human rights.

It begins with an explanation of the following impacts of climate change on human rights.

Climate change has disastrous consequences on weather patterns, ecosystems and biodiversity. These impacts directly and indirectly affect all human rights, including the rights to life, food, health and water. The impacts of climate change also exacerbate social and economic inequalities, disproportionately affecting people already in vulnerable situations including children, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities.

Corporate responsibility and necessary action

As we can infer from the comment about the UN General Assembly resolution cited earlier, Japan gives the impression that it as a nation is reticent about tackling environmental issues as human rights issues.

Turning to business, Japanese companies and institutions account for almost 30% of those that endorse the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) worldwide, lending an appearance of increased awareness of how climate change impacts corporate finances. That said, how many of those companies are aware of the impacts of climate change on rightsholders and are actually attempting to fulfil their responsibilities?

As stated in paragraph 21 of the Working Group’s information note, businesses must provide information sufficient for external rightsholders to “evaluate the adequacy of their response to climate change-related human rights harms.”

It is important to note that risk in the context of human rights does not refer to risk to businesses, but rather, risk to rightsholders. Therefore, we need assessments from a completely different perspective than that of the TCFD.

Climate change is the result of the actions (or inaction) of numerous actors compounded across time and borders. It is difficult to think about a company’s responsibility for environmental issues as human rights issues because it is hard to see how an individual company is involved. And yet, a company does not lack responsibility because its involvement is minimal or hard to see — it is precisely because its involvement is so minimal and hard to see that it is crucial to “take collective action” as outlined in paragraph 22 of the report.

The report also describes the actions required of companies according to the Guiding Principles. Check out the Information Note on Climate Change and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights here.

Minami Tateyama (author), translation by Melody Poland

Photo by Caleb Cook via Unsplash