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Decarbonisation and de-pollution strategies must be guided by human rights: UN expert

19 September 2023

GENEVA (19 September 2023) – A UN expert today urged States to accelerate strategies for decarbonisation and detoxification that are integrated and guided by human rights.

“Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently needed to tackle the global climate crisis. Decarbonisation of the energy matrix and polluting sectors of the economy is essential to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Yet, some climate technologies proposed in recent years may increase the toxic burden on people and the planet,” said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

In his report to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, Orellana said the extraction of so-called transition minerals and metals can exacerbate the toxic impacts of mining. He also noted that solar panels and wind turbines used to generate electricity, and lithium-ion batteries to store it, can pose significant waste management challenges. “Mislabelling nuclear energy generation as ‘green’ downplays the acute challenges of uranium mining and radioactive waste disposal,” he said.

The expert warned against disinformation campaigns that promote misleading and false narratives about purported climate solutions. “Dangerous chemicals, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are being promoted as an integral part of the energy transition, ignoring their persistence in the environment and toxic effects,” he said.

“Decarbonisation efforts guided by human rights must be applied to all sectors, including in the shipping industry,” the Special Rapporteur said as he presented the recommendations he made to the International Maritime Organization. He noted that maritime shipping accounts for around 90 per cent of international trade by volume. “The vast majority of this activity is powered by heavy fuel oil, making the industry a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants,” he said.

Orellana stressed that the adverse impacts caused by some decarbonization efforts weigh heavily on groups in vulnerable situations. “This situation undermines progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and hunger, to ensure healthy lives, clean water, decent work, sustainable consumption, and to protect and preserve lands and waters,” he said.

“Environmental and human rights safeguards should be strengthened and enforced, not dismantled in the name of energy transition. Human rights due diligence standards along the supply chain for climate change mitigation technologies should be mandatory,” the expert said.

The Special Rapporteur urged States not only to assess the greenhouse gas reduction potential of climate action, but also to conduct a full life cycle assessment, including the impacts of material extraction, pollution released during manufacture, chemical exposure during use, and waste management and disposal.


Marcos A. Orellana, the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes was appointed by the Human Rights Council as of July 2020. Dr Orellana is an expert in international law and the law on human rights and the environment. His practice as legal advisor has included work with United Nations agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations, including on wastes and chemicals issues at the Basel and Minamata conventions, the UN Environment Assembly and the Human Rights Council. He has intervened in cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body. His practice in the climate space includes representing the eight-nations Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and serving as senior legal advisor to the Presidency of the 25th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He has extensive experience working with civil society around the world on issues concerning global environmental justice. He was the inaugural director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Previously he directed the trade and the human rights programs at the Center for International Environmental Law, and he co-chaired the UN Environment Program's civil society forum. He teaches International Environmental Law at the George Washington University School of Law and International Law at the American University Washington College of Law. Previously he has lectured in prominent universities around the world, including Melbourne, Pretoria, Geneva, and Guadalajara. He was a fellow at the University of Cambridge, visiting scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC, and instructor professor of international law at the Universidad de Talca, Chile.

The 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.

For more information and media requests please contact: Ms. Noura Humoud A. AlZaid ([email protected])

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) or Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected])

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