On December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement was reached. Five years later, its effective implementation is more important than ever.
One of the agreement’s most significant advances was to reiterate that States must, "when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on 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.”
This aspect is one of the outstanding issues, and also one of the great opportunities, of the Paris Agreement.
In 2015, I had the privilege of participating in the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where the agreement was adopted.
Thanks to the live broadcast, I saw the last hammer blow of this historic summit on my phone while on the train to the airport. I traded celebratory hugs with dozens of colleagues for arriving a day earlier to celebrate with my family. It was worth it. After all, my contribution had concluded a few hours earlier.
Over the five years prior, and with full intensity during the COP21, I reviewed drafts, and spoke with missions and colleagues about how crucial it was to include human rights in the climate agreement. My priority—shared by colleagues from organizations, some government representatives and international entities—was to ensure a strong agreement, including the obligation to consider and respect human rights. For some people, this was an obstacle, even inappropriate, as they saw the climate crisis as a purely technical issue. Some delegations told me that human rights issues are another area entirely.
We insisted on the point until we achieved it, not out of stubbornness (although there may have been some of that), but because in essence the climate crisis affects our rights, our lives and all of us. That’s why it is vital to put human rights at the center of climate action. Otherwise, these actions are incomplete.
This is evidenced by the reality of the climate crisis, translated for example into the damages sustained by millions of people and communities by the hurricanes and storms that have, in recent months, devastated coastal areas in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean; the floods in South Asia; the droughts in northern Mexico; and the devastating fires in the Amazon, California and Australia.
The most vulnerable people and communities who have contributed least to the crisis are disproportionately affected. It is therefore possible, and necessary, to find balance through a human rights approach.
It’s necessary to hold States, companies and even some sectors of the population accountable. Responsibility with a sense of equity is one of the fundamental principles of human rights.
In fact, the 2020 UN Emissions Gap Report concludes by saying, "Equity is central to addressing lifestyles. The emissions of the richest 1 per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent."
Communities, movements and peoples around the world have demanded—even in court—effective climate action that respects their rights. This has been reiterated by the United Nations. But climate action is still largely considered a question of numbers, tons of emissions to be reduced and hectares to be conserved. People and communities, despite being the ones who live the consequences, remain on the periphery of this action.
Ensuring a true human rights perspective would help raise ambition and the level of obligations and outcomes. It would also allow impacts to be considered in a comprehensive manner and, as the IPCC concluded, take into account ancestral knowledge and social justice, which are central elements in finding effective solutions. Therein lies the opportunity that is being lost.
The scientific community today confirms the widening gap between the current situation and where we should be in reducing emissions. According to the recent UN emissions gap report, emissions were reduced in the last year due to the suspension of activities caused by the pandemic, while in the previous year they had continued to increase.
In fact, despite the pandemic, which is also linked to environmental degradation, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as in other regions, continue to rely mostly on fossil fuels, even for the economic recovery following the pandemic.
This trend ignores the provisions of the Paris Agreement on the obligation of States to reduce emissions and implement effective measures while respecting human rights. It’s an element yet to be fulfilled, and a fundamental tool for States to increase their ambition and move towards the solutions that have as yet proven elusive.
The five-year anniversary of this Agreement is a good time to remember it and to demand its implementation. If not, the most vulnerable communities will continue to suffer the consequences, and global inequalities will continue to deepen.
Then, there will also be an increase in lawsuits and demands for a solution that the agreement itself incorporated. One element of leadership would be to put people and communities at the center of climate action.
This is what I mean when I talk about climate justice, a great opportunity that many of us will continue to promote.