UN expert calls for rights-based transition towards sustainable and climate-resilient housing
08 March 2023
GENEVA (8 March 2023) – The world must take urgent steps towards achieving just, human rights-based, climate-resilient and carbon-neutral housing for all, the UN’s independent housing rights expert told the Human Rights Council today.
“Housing should not be realised mindlessly, in a way that destroys the planet. On the contrary, States must focus on housing that is resilient against climate events, with a reduced carbon footprint, in efforts to realise the right to adequate housing,” said Balakrishnan Rajagopal, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing in a report to the Council’s 52nd Session.
“In 2022 alone, we bore witness to numerous climate-induced disasters across the world that destroyed completely peoples’ homes, rendered them uninhabitable, or forced people to migrate in large numbers”, the UN expert said. “Most at risk are the marginalized groups of society, including those living in informal settlements.”
“While the climate crisis severely threatens the realisation of the right to adequate housing, housing is itself part of the problem, having a significant carbon footprint,” Rajagopal said.
Housing accounts for at least 37 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, without even counting how it further contributes through increased average per capita living space, the emission of pollutants, urban sprawl, deforestation and soil sealing.
The UN expert said it was imperative to invest in the energy efficiency of buildings and environmentally-friendly construction, while also keeping housing affordable and accessible.
The housing deficit in many countries requires more building, but this alone would result in more carbon emissions, Rajagopal warned. The Special Rapporteur argued that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities of climate policies requires a careful prioritisation in developed and developing countries.
In developing countries, the majority of mitigation potential is in new buildings, while potential is in retrofitting existing buildings in developed countries.
“Developed countries have a responsibility to reconsider whether building new, more, and larger housing is the most efficient solution to protect the right to housing in a climate compliant manner. They need rather to take stock of whether the existing built environment can be used, upgraded or converted for housing,” Rajagopal said.
The Special Rapporteur explained that a human-rights based transition in the housing sector would require a participatory and inclusive approach.
“Otherwise, climate action and post-disaster reconstruction runs the risk of worsening inequalities and deepening the vulnerabilities of already marginalised communities,” Rajagopal said.
In international human rights law, adequate housing is understood to comprise seven criteria - security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, appropriate location and cultural adequacy.
“While the core elements remain relevant in the context of the climate crisis, it is time to recognise that the right to adequate housing should include the additional element of sustainability,” the expert said.
Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, assumed his function as Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing on 1 May 2020. He is Professor of Law and Development at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A lawyer by training, he is an expert on many areas of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, the UN system, and the human rights challenges posed by development activities.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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