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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

25th Conference of the Parties

Addressing access to remedy and the business and human rights dimension of climate change

09 December 2019



9 December 2019

Ms Tébar Less,

Distinguished panellists,

Representatives of government,

Business leaders,

Activists and colleagues,

I am very glad to address this essential topic with all of you.

We all want to see a thriving economy that works for people and planet. Businesses do best in conditions of stability, with healthy economies, and educated and productive workers and consumers. Those conditions are created by measures that uphold people's civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. And they are critically threatened by the climate emergency.

Climate change and environmental degradation directly and indirectly interfere with the enjoyment of all human rights, including the rights to life, housing, water and sanitation, food, health, development, gender rights and an adequate standard of living.

In the short, medium and long term, the climate crisis is also generating, and will intensify, physical and financial threats to the operations, profit and reputation of businesses and investors in every country.

Direct operations will be impacted, with growing costs from damaged production and distribution facilities – as well as likely shifts in legal and regulatory systems. Supply chains will be shaken and disrupted. Customers will feel the effects. There will be profound changes in the markets for your goods. Reputational risks related to climate change will grow, for every business and investment institution, as more people, cities, and countries examine responsibilities for the climate damage they are suffering.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge estimates that 7% of global GDP is likely to be wiped out by the end of the century if current climate trends continue – and this figure may prove to be very conservative. A study in Nature recently indicated that land that is currently home to some 150 million people will be "permanently below the high tide line" within 30 years – and this provides a very conservative indication of how many people may be displaced and deprived of shelter and livelihoods. Already, current estimates indicate that climate and weather-related disasters are displacing nearly 20 million people every year.

The world needs businesses and investors to grasp these issues, with deeper climate risk assessments to measure and understand their own environmental and human rights impact. We need far more urgent action by business actors to prevent environmental damage, uphold human rights, address inequalities and help drive solutions to this emergency.

The OECD has been doing excellent work to encourage businesses, investors and States to uphold responsible standards for business conduct, in line with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the ILO Declaration on Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. Several of the business actors present here today have shown leadership in this respect.

But I remind you that the extraction of fossil fuels has doubled in the past 30 years. Research by the Carbon Disclosure Project has shown that 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions around the world are produced by just 100 corporate and state-run business entities. Twenty five of them account for slightly over half of the world's production of industrial greenhouse gasses.  

Some of them have even been involved in undermining scientific findings on the climate risks from carbon, and have actively lobbied against badly-needed action by Governments.

But the responsibilities for taking action are not limited to 25 fossil fuel producers. They extend to every major business and investment institution, including those that are state-owned. Such action is in their own interest. People who are displaced and destitute will not be purchasing services and goods. Climate crisis is not the enabling environment for growth and prosperity that most businesses need.

Allow me to cite a document issued by the Swiss bank UBS last month, which outlines direct and indirect potential exposure to climate impacts. "Incremental changes in climate (such as rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns) can affect economic output and productivity – while extreme events can lead to damage, operational downtime and lost production for fixed assets, and potential changes to property value. Extreme events, which are increasing in both frequency and intensity, often attract more attention as their impacts are more apparent. However (...) incremental changes have the potential to gradually erode the financial performance of entire borrower segments."

Governments have been far too slow to react adequately to the climate emergency. But as it intensifies, there will be action for a massive economic transition. Many different technologies and renewable energy sources will be pulled into play. The rights and needs of the world's people – and the bottom line for every business – require that that transition be just, and as smooth as possible. And this transition can be an opening for business opportunities – with rising demand for low-emissions products and services, and a window to create a strong reputation for business conduct that upholds human rights.

In the transition to a green economy, the presence and support of all stakeholders is needed to ensure that economic and industrial restructuring becomes a strong driver for inclusive growth, job creation and poverty eradication – and that it does not deepen inequalities, driving more people into misery.

Achieving a just transition is key – because if the process of transition is not just, then its outcomes will not be just, either. There must be focused social policies to mitigate and protect against the difficulties of industrial and economic change – including measures such as low and zero-emission public transportation, as countries shift to renewable energy.

A just transition can build social inclusion and give people a sense of security in a world of rapid change.

It should be clear that business as usual is not an option. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste pointed out that since the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984, "case after case has illustrated the chemical industry's failure to respect the human rights to life and the highest attainable standard of health... The chemical industry exemplifies the weakness of voluntary standards on human rights and the urgent need for strong requirements with legal force."

I also note that in a recent case involving harmful use of pesticides in Paraguay, the Committee responsible for monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has set an important precedent – establishing that under international human rights law, States must conduct investigations into cases of environmental harm, sanction those responsible and provide reparations to victims.

Human rights due diligence should be standard practice in the petro-chemical industry, as in all other business activities.  The world needs Governments to step up with a mix of measures that include strong laws to uphold the human right to a safe and healthy environment; regulations that require principled action by business and finance; appropriate taxation measures; and incentives.

These laws and regulations need to extend also to state-run firms, and Governments' own transactions with business. And they need to make it clear that action must be real: businesses should not be able to clear the slate with some superficial green-washing. I welcome the trend towards mandatory measures, with some countries now requiring or considering mandatory human rights due diligence, which would include identifying, preventing and mitigating human rights risks related to climate change.

Across the world, people and communities are already taking to the streets – and using strategic litigation – to demand climate justice. And these movements can only grow. All those affected by climate change have a right to participate in social dialogue and more effective decision-making, including with respect to business operations and the impact of development projects – many of which are financed by private and public investors.

They also have a right to remedy. People and governments are increasingly seeking to hold businesses accountable for their contributions to the climate crisis. And all companies that have contributed to climate change should provide for, or cooperate, in remediation. But what we're seeing is considerable resistance, and reprisals – violence and even murder; massive online campaigns of slander; and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, which can impose intolerable costs on those seeking accountability for climate harms. We'll hear some of these stories from our panel today. I want to emphasise that we all have an obligation to protect from retaliation and harm those who seek justice, and we should honour their contributions to our collective wellbeing.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development is a clear, universal and already agreed action plan to guide governments and business actors to address the climate challenge. The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, and related specific guidelines for key business sectors, form a road-map. And the collective body of international human rights law constitutes a precise and detailed compass to action that upholds human dignity, including in crisis. The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights last month outlined a number of recommendations on possible actions going forward – including strengthening consultation, participation, human rights due diligence and independent grievance mechanisms. These need to be at the core of all actions we take to address climate change, including here at the UNFCCC, under mechanisms for international cooperation established by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

Distinguished panellists,

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that all States and relevant actors must uphold and protect the dignity, equality and rights of all human beings. In this climate emergency that we face, it is time for every business and every State to step up for human rights.

Thank you, and I look forward to this discussion.