In May 2020, Emma Walsh, our Summer Office Manager, attended the "Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals & the Law: International Legal Symposium" hosted by our partners at the CISDL. The panel asked, "why and how could a human-rights based approach to climate change yield better results than simply focusing on emission reductions? Given that access to energy determines levels of development, should there be a human right to energy and if so, what role would renewables play? What standard of care would be implied by a “human right to a stable climate” and what is expected of States?" A number of speakers (listed at the end) contributed to the discussion.
SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
In the opening remarks for the CISDL Symposium, consideration was given to the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Experts remarked that this decade was supposed to bring great strides forward for the elimination of poverty and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. However, the Pandemic and its inevitable economic impacts prompt us to rethink our approach. We find ourselves with a vital opportunity for reimagination. This panel echoed this sentiment with a specific focus on the Paris Climate Agreement and the tension between SDG 7 and SDG 13 with regard to human rights.
As the experts expressed, the Paris Climate Agreement was ultimately a reflection of politics. As a consequence, it is not focused on human rights. If our concern is human rights, looking to science is our best bet. However, even within the Sustainable Development Goals, there are concerns. Many worry that SDG 7 and its mandate for ensuring access to clean energy, coupled with the expediency of SDG 13, may result in human rights violations. Sure enough, experts pointed to unfolding situations in Kenya and Nigeria where energy development efforts are protested in the courts for this very reason. Emphasis was also put on human rights violations that emerged from the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.
The key takeaway is that, while it is necessary to ensure access to clean energy and do so urgently to reduce climate change, substantive human rights must still remain of primary concern. In order to achieve this, some experts suggested that better data collection processes and standards must be implemented. Without such data, it will be impossible to accurately track the implementation of the SDGs. Further, experts emphasized that states must take a rights-based approach in SDG implementation, especially with regard to information, participation, and access to justice.
A question was raised about whether or not these concerns could further neo-colonial policies where developed states demand certain actions from developing states. In response, it was suggested that while all states share a common responsibility to shift away from fossil fuels, they have differentiated responsibilities in phasing out those fuels. This approach imposes the stricter deadline of the year 2030 on developed states and provides more flexibility to developing states. There were also hopeful examples raised, such as a clean energy program in impoverished Bangladeshi areas. This program allows individuals to buy into clean energy with credit and repayment is purported to cost less than kerosine, which is normally used in these communities, making it both a clean and attractive alternative that promotes the human rights of a vulnerable population.
On a systemic level, the experts stressed the necessity of a paradigm shift in our thinking about our relationship with the environment. Our perspective in these international agreements often reflects the Baconian idea that man dominates the earth. Instead, we need to recognize and adopt the view that we are in an essentially interdependent relationship with the environment. We are urged to adopt an integrated planetary health perspective, which combines the health of the earth with the health of humanity. It is essential that we take a transformative approach at this systemic level moving forward in implementing SDGs.
Finally, we were left with an important reminder that we do not lack solutions. Climate scientists have developed a myriad of solutions. Instead, much like we see in the Paris Climate Agreement, we lack political will. It’s our job as human rights advocates and lawyers to adapt our legal systems in a way that will recognize and implement the available solutions.
Recordings of the conference are available online.
Speakers: Prof. Lynda Collins (Full Professor, University of Ottawa Common Law Section); Prof. Cristina Redko (Assoc. Professor & Center for Global Health Director, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine); Prof. Damilola Olawuyi (Assoc. Professor, Hamad Bin Kalifa University / Legal Fellow, CISDL); Adv. Erick Kassongo (Director, Centre Congolais pour le Développement Durable (CODED) & Intervenors: Prof. David Boyd (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & the Environment / Assoc. Professor, University of British Columbia); Dr. Saleemul Huq (Senior Fellow, Climate Change, International Institute for Environment and Development); Dr. Cosmin Correndea (Professor, O.P. Jindal Global University / Senior Legal Research Fellow, CISDL); Dr. Idil Boran (Assoc. Professor, York University / Ass. Researcher German Development Institute). Closing Remarks: Adv. Hafijul Islam Khan (Co-coordinator, Loss & Damage Team, UNFCCC LDCs Group / Centre for Climate Justice-Bangladesh / Researcher, University of Waterloo)