Climate change and the right to housing

Natural disasters and the climate crisis have enormous impacts on the enjoyment of the right to housing, with exponential increases in these effects anticipated in decades to come.”
- Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing

Flood inundating informal settlement in Kapu Muara Jakarta/Indonesia, February 2007 © CCClimate-fuelled disasters were the primary driver of internal displacement during the past decade, forcing an estimated 20 million people a year from their homes. Those living in homelessness or lacking access to resilient or secure housing are the most adversely affected, as they often live in areas that are vulnerable to floods, hurricanes and cyclones, storm surges, mudslides, earthquakes and tsunamis. Moreover, States taking disaster risk management measures often fail to consider their effects on vulnerable communities and their right to housing.

The manner in which the right to housing is to be realized also has implications for climate change. It has been estimated that the building and construction sector accounts for 39 per cent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, most of which is concentrated in middle- and high-income countries. It is in low-income countries, however, that the greatest amount of construction will be required if target 11.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved. States individually and the international community as a whole must respond urgently to the climate crisis while also ensuring access to sustainable housing, prioritizing those most in need.

Resolutions and Declarations

Human Rights Council resolution 43/14 adopted on 19 June 2020 calls upon States “to take the right to adequate housing into account in strategies for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change” and “to work with affected communities and individuals to develop and promote environmentally sustainable and sound housing design, construction and maintenance to address the effects of climate change while ensuring the right to adequate housing.”

In resolution 41/21 on climate change and human rights from 12 July 2019 the Council emphasized “that the adverse effects of climate change have a range of implications, which can increase with greater global warming, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights, including, inter alia, […] the right to adequate housing […].” The Council furthermore calls upon States to “continue and enhance international cooperation and assistance, in particular in financing, the transfer of technology and capacity-building, for mitigation and adaptation measures to assist developing countries, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, to better promote human rights in general and the access of persons with disabilities in particular to livelihoods,[…] adequate housing and decent work, […];” (para. 6).

The New Urban Agenda adopted by the UN Habitat III Conference in 1996 includes as well several references to climate change and housing. The Agenda underlines the need for the participation of inhabitants in climate action: “We commit ourselves to promoting international, national, subnational and local climate action, including climate change adaptation and mitigation, and to supporting the efforts of cities and human settlements, their inhabitants and all local stakeholders as important implementers.” (para. 79).

Guidelines

The Special Rapporteur from 2014 to 2020, Leilani Farha, produced Guidelines for the implementation of the right to adequate housing (2020), including Guideline no. 13: “Ensure that the right to housing informs and is responsive to climate change and address the effects of the climate crisis on the right to housing”. Emphasising the impact of climate change on the right to adequate housing of the most vulnerable, implementation measures for this guideline include that:

  1. The right to adequate housing should be integrated into strategies for the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, as well as in planning, preparing and implementing strategies for addressing climate change displacement.
  2. In situations where communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and climate change-related disasters, such as those living on or near waterways and shorelines, priority should be given to adaptation measures to preserve existing communities
  3. While making every effort to mitigate climate change, States should conduct thorough analyses of anticipated climate displacement, determine likely time frames and identify communities at risk and possible relocation sites.
  4. States must work with affected communities to develop and promote environmentally sound housing construction and maintenance to address the effects of climate change while ensuring the right to housing. The particular vulnerability of indigenous peoples to climate change must be recognized and all necessary support should be provided to enable indigenous peoples to develop their own responses. (para. 72)

UN Human Rights’ Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change highlight the essential obligations and responsibilities of States and other duty-bearers (including businesses) and their implications for climate change-related agreements, policies, and actions. These include:

  1. To mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts
  2. To ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change
  3. To ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by climate change
  4. To mobilize maximum available resources for sustainable, human-rights based development
  5. International cooperation
  6. To ensure equity in climate action
  7. To guarantee that everyone enjoys the benefits of science and its applications
  8. To protect human rights from busines harms
  9. To guarantee equality and non-discrimination
  10. To ensure meaningful and informed participation

Expanding on the second obligation, the notes state that “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 such as those living in vulnerable areas (e.g. small islands, riparian and low-lying coastal zones, arid regions, and the poles).”

Report: Climate Change and the Right to Housing (2009)

The report by the Special Rapporteur looks at the causes that have produced climate change but at the impact of climate change on the fulfilment of the right to adequate housing, especially in respect of how climate change exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. The report provides an overview of the scope and severity of climate change, its implications for extreme weather events and its possible impact on urban and rural areas, including unplanned and unserviced settlements, on human mobility and on small islands and low-lying coastal zones. The report analyses the relevant international human rights frameworks and obligations in connection with the right to adequate housing. It also explores policies on mitigation and adaptation from a human rights perspective to the right to adequate housing. It concludes with recommendations, in particular for mitigation and adaptation strategies that are being designed and negotiated at local, national and international levels.

See the report A/64/255 in all six UN languages.

Report: The right to housing of Indigenous Peoples (2019)

In the report the Special Rapporteur highlights that indigenous peoples have contributed the least to the climate crisis, but are most affected by it. They are now finding themselves on the front lines facing every disaster, from the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic, to the deforestation of the Amazon, to the rising sea swallowing islands in Oceania. She noted that under the Paris Agreement States parties must respect, promote and consider the rights of indigenous peoples when taking action to address climate change. However, in the Special Rapporteur’s experience, little consideration is given to the human rights of indigenous peoples, in particular their rights to self-determination and to live in dignity and security, in the application of the Paris Agreement.

See the report A/74/183 in all six UN languages.

Related Documents

MISEREOR and GI-ESCR – Local struggles for housing rights in the context of climate change, urbanization and environmental degradation (2020)

The report to which the Special Rapporteur contributed shows how the right to adequate housing and related rights are threatened by climate change, increasing urbanization and environmental degradation, by highlighting ground-level experiences from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It aims to encourage an integrated approach to policy-making and to present examples of community-led advocacy and solutions from civil society groups from five countries.

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Related resources

OHCHR and climate change

Reports by various UN human rights mechanism on climate change

Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment

UNHCR – Climate Change and Disaster Displacement

Amnesty International – Climate Change