COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD

General comment on children's rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change

Concept note


INTRODUCTION

  • Environmental harm adversely affects the life trajectory of children much more than adults. The loss of biodiversity, pollution, as well as climate change are significant interrelated contributors to the world experiencing political and economic instability, growing inequality, declining food and water security and increased threats to health and livelihoods.
  • Described as the “sixth mass extinction” by scientists,1 human activity (such as land use change, pollution, overexploitation, and invasive alien species) has increased the loss of biodiversity. These anthropogenic developments are not cost neutral for the enjoyment of human rights, which depend on thriving, biodiverse, healthy habitats and ecosystems. For example, environmental degradation has been described as one of “the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life”.2
  • It is reported that every year no less than 1.5 million under the age of 5 years die as a result of air pollution, water pollution, exposure to toxic substances, and other types of environmental harm.3 By increasing the incidence of asthma, diabetes and cancer, among other medical conditions, these factors also contribute to disease, disability and early mortality throughout the life of children. Evidence also exists that the rise in the type of animal-to-human zoonosis that can result in viral epidemics is caused by environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.4
  • The world is also facing a climate change crisis that many have described as the defining crisis of our time. The climate change crisis continues to threaten both civil, political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights of present and future generations. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that the negative impact of climate change threatens children’s rights to health, life, food, water and sanitation, education, housing, culture and development among others.5 Climate change will cause an additional 60,000 and 48,000 deaths from malaria and diarrhoeal disease respectively among children under 15 by 2030; it will be responsible for an additional 95,000 deaths from undernutrition in children aged under 5 by 2030 and an additional 24 million undernourished children by 2050.6
  • Also, while all children are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change, children with disabilities, children on the move, children living in poverty, children separated from their families, and the youngest are most at risk.7 Climate change is also exacerbating the impacts of disasters as it increases the frequency and severity of weather and climate hazards.8 The scientific evidence has also pointed to increase in the frequency, magnitude and duration of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, drought and associated wildfires, heavy rain, and coastal flooding due to the increased greenhouse gases driving the climate change.
  • While the effects of climate change are felt around the globe, their negative effects are acute within the populations and countries that have contributed the least to climate change. These especially include children, and people living in poverty, minorities, indigenous people, and peasants and other people working in rural areas. Also evidence has shown that the risks, burdens and impacts of climate change on adults and children, as well as on boys and girls are at times different.9 In fact, the 2019 report by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found that climate change will exacerbate inequality around the world.10

SCOPE OF THE GENERAL COMMENT

  • The General Comment can start with an overall discussion on children’s rights and the environment, and proceed further and focus on the climate change crisis. The former can highlight three issues pertaining to the environment- pollution, loss of biodiversity11, and climate change in broad strokes. It can also focus the discussion in respect of the four general principles (namely non-discrimination; best interests; the right to life survival and development; and the views of the child) focussing on all three aspects. Subsequently it could focus most of the discussions of specific thematic issues on climate change.
  • The scope of the General Comment will also need to cover all three types of obligations – namely substantive, procedural, as well as heightened obligations 12– that are owed to children in the context of the environment with a special focus on climate change. Moreover, the General Comment will be informed by the science13 around climate change and its effects on children’s rights. While the CRC should remain the main anchor instrument in the drafting of the General Comment, the relevant parts of the Optional Protocols and, to a limited extent, other relevant international instruments will also need to be explored.

OBJECTIVES OF THE GENERAL COMMENT

  • The main objective of the General Comment is to
    • Provide authoritative guidance to State Parties to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures of a child-rights approach to environmental issues with a special focus on climate change
    • In doing so it aims, among others, to
    • Clarify the extent of States’ obligations relating to climate change and children’s rights, including with regard to mitigation, and adaptation
    • Emphasise the urgent need to address the adverse effects of environmental harm and climate change on children;
    • Clarify the relationship between children’s rights and the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and management of and access to natural resources, and States’ child rights obligations pertaining to policies on these matters; and
    • Clarify how children should be able to exercise their rights to information, participation, and access to justice to protect against environmental harm,
    • Shed light on the societal, legal, and other implications of concepts such as “international cooperation” “extraterritorial obligations” “future generations” “intergenerational equity” etc with a view to improve the legislative, administrative and other measures that States as well as other stakeholders undertake to uphold the rights of the child in the context of the environment and climate change.

1 Vignieri, S. (25 July 2014). "Vanishing fauna (Special issue)". Science. 345 (6195): 392–412; IPBES (2018): The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Montanarella, L., Scholes, R., and Brainich, A. (eds.). Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany

2 UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 36, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/GC/36, para. 62 (2019)

3 WHO, ‘Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health’ (2017) 1.

4 OHCHR ‘Human Rights, the Environment and COVID-19: Key messages (2021) available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/HR-environment-COVID19.pdf

5 OHCHR ‘Analytical study on the relationship between climate and the full and effective enjoyment of the rights of the child’ 4 May 2017 A/HRC/35/13.

6 See HRC ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment’ A/HRC/37/58 for a discussion on the relationship between children’s rights and the environment at paras 10-11 & 22-26; UNICEF ‘UNICEF’s written submission to the study of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on climate change and the full and effective enjoyment of the rights of the child’ 6 January 2017 accessed at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/RightsChild/UNICEF.docx on 3 January 2021;.

7 Supra footnote 5. Also see CEDAW, CESCR, CPRMWMF, CRC, CRPD ‘Joint Statement on Human Rights and Climate Change. CRC ‘Report of the 2016 Day of General Discussion: Children’s Rights and the Environment accessed at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CRC/Discussions/2016/DGDoutcomereport-May2017.docx 4-6 on 4 June 2021.

8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report — Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (Geneva, 2013). The Panel notes that climate change “refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer”.

9 See Commission on the Status of Women, resolutions 56/2 and 58/2 on gender equality and the empowerment of women in natural disasters, adopted by consensus in March 2012 and March 2014.

10 HRC ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights: Climate change and poverty’ 25 June 2019 A/HRC/41/39.

11 IPBES-IPCC report (2021) “Biodiversity and Climate Change” https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2021-06/20210609_workshop_report_embargo_3pm_CEST_10_june_0.pdf

12 HRC “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”, 24 January 2018 (A/HRC/37/59)

13 IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

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