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How much longer for a legally-binding accord on emissions reductions?


The Cancún climate negotiations closed last week, culminating in a well-praised but modest agreement that has been applauded as "the reaffirmation of the multilateral process," "effectively putting meat on the bones" of the previous, disappointingly non-committal Copenhagen Accord.

The negotiations resulted in, for the first time, an official UN agreement where countries have agreed to cap global temperature rises at now more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, talks on emissions have been based on voluntary pledges, with no sanction or penalty for non-compliance. Another breaking move has been the establishment of The Green Climate Fund which is intended to raise $100 billion a year to help poor and vulnerable countries defend themselves against the negative impacts of climate change. The World Bank will be its initial trustee, but which countries will help finance this fund, and which countries will be eligible to qualify for it has yet to be defined. A new Adaptation Committee has also been established to support countries in their climate protection plans as well as guidance on deforestation reductions.

But it is clear that the world is still far short of achieving a legally-binding mechanism on emissions cuts, falling short of the comprehensive deal that many governments and activists would hope to have achieved. Nonetheless, as UN Secertary General Ban Ki Moon stated in his remarks at the Conference, we cannot let "the ongoing nature of these complex negotiations lull us into any type of complacency."

Sixty-two years ago on December 10th, the same date as the closing of the Cancún negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-the first global expression of human rights. In it, states recognized that inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights is the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

So, what do human rights have to do with climate change and its environmental impacts?

First of all, the livelihoods of billions of people are at stake. The very real, immediate and existential threats that many small-island nations are facing due to rising sea levels should be a wake-up call to world leaders on what can be expected in the future on a much larger scale should we continue on a path of "business as usual" which, according to Ban, would condemn billions of people around the world "to shrinking horizons and smaller futures."

Some of the rights that will be placed in particular peril include the right to life, the right to adequate food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Human rights treaties require countries to commit to their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights including extra-territorial responsibility beyond their borders, and, in particular, to monitor private entities which are, in the case of climate change, one of the main causes of emissions.

Furthermore, it is the most poor and marginalized who are frequently first exposed to climate change's worst impacts, increasingly affecting many aspects of their daily lives. They are the most unable to cope with these changes, however, and often do not understand what is happening to their communities and the implications of these changes for future generations.

Human rights place an immediate obligation to target vulnerable groups first to adhere with the principle of non-discrimination and equality. The UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights has stated that climate change should be addressed "in a way that is fair and just, cognizant of the needs and risks faced by the vulnerable groups," while any "sustainable solution to climate change must take into account its human impact and the needs of all communities in all countries in a holistic manner."

Yet despite some recent initiatives, climate change and human rights have largely tended to be discussed in isolation, the former being seen as the work of scientists, meteorologists and environmentalists and the latter merely referred to in some cases of violations of indigenous livelihoods or land degradation. The dissonance caused by this false dichotomy is reflected in the failure up to now to integrate human rights standards into climate policies at the global level.

In a side event organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Center for International Environmental Law during last year's Copenhagen Summit, it was acknowledged that human rights law is guided by principles of equity and social justice, which should oblige states to achieve the best results for the fulfillment of human rights.

However, many solutions being put on the table at these negotiations have been grounded in a market-based approach with the aim of making economic actors aware of the costs of resource depletion, degradation and emissions, with a focus on industry compromises that can be both profitable and less damaging. Climate change has moved from being seen as an ecological problem to an economic one. Throughout this evolution, the emphasis on achieving technical efficiency and commoditization has sidelined human rights arguments in climate change mitigation and adaptation responses.

Furthermore, human rights place obligations of conduct to ensure participation, transparency and accountability in policy-making and monitoring processes, which should be incorporated into an elaborated climate change regime. Regrettably, opportunities for civil society representations to be engaged and participate in global climate change negotiations have been sparse, bureaucratic and highly regulated.

As a case in point in Cancún, on December 8, 2010, Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the key indigenous activists attending the Conference, was blocked from entering the summit a day after he publicly criticized the UN process. In a statement recounting the events, he said that his treatment was an indicator of a "larger and disturbing pattern" to silence voices of civil society and drastically reduce the freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest of affected groups and stakeholders.

We must also see both human rights and climate change through an innovative lens. Responding to human rights violations as a result of negative impacts of climate change should not be just considered in terms of classic legal arguments, but also as a greater ethical imperative towards guaranteeing greater climate justice for present and future generations.