At the Human Rights Council: Stressing the impact of climate change on the right to health

The discussion opened with the declaration that 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded. As John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Sustainable Development, stated, this year, being in general 1°C hotter than usual, had all the characteristics that would appear in the future, with, for instance, a higher occurrence of violent floods, hurricanes, and droughts. Global warming will induce multiple diseases, as climate variables have many impacts on a large set of spheres. Taking that into account, this summit aimed to make health the central element of the discussion, rather than putting the economic aspects of mitigation and adaptation measures at the forefront. Human rights and the right to health are considered top priorities for UN member states, which have to be taken into account before any other considerations.

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31st Session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations, Room XVI. Source: Céline Krebs

The impact of climate change on human rights
If climate change concerns all countries, it does not affect them equally but in fact enhances inequalities: the most vulnerable countries, which have less economic, social and political means at their disposal to take adaptation measures, are the ones that will get the most negative impacts.
The level of vulnerability depends of several factors: for instance, small insular countries are highly vulnerable to rising sea level: it will lead to massive displacements and climatic migration. African, and in particular sub-Saharan countries, will suffer from droughts and flooding which will jeopardize their agriculture and their food security, as it is already the case with the El Nino’s effect today. Some countries have the required economic resources allowing them to take adaptation measures in order to protect their populations; some others receive help from the international community. As Dr Lilibeth C.David, from the Philippian Department of Health, explained, the Philippines have been able to implement the Hyogo Framework measures in regards to health, recommended by the UN to help countries build resilience to disasters risks, in cooperation with the World Health Organization. However, many other countries require assistance, especially economic support, because they lack the necessary resources in order to build their resilience. As stated by Trung Than Nguyen, the Representative for Vietnam and member of the Panel, Vietnam is one of the top five countries most vulnerable to climate change, with an increase in temperature of 2 to 3°C and a sea rise of one meter and will be directly impacted. According to their studies, it would impact 12 percent of the country’s population and have severe food security repercussions worldwide, as Vietnam is the second largest rice exporters.
The inequality is even stronger if we consider the fact that the countries which are going to be the most impacted are also those which are the less historically responsible for gas emissions, such as the small insular countries or most of the developing countries in Africa, in South America and Asia. In the same way, alimentation in developed countries, based on meat, is proven to be environmentally disastrous: according to a report published by the WorldWatch Institute, at least 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by animal farming, taking into account the huge cereal production needed in order to feed them.
Cristina Tirado, chair of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences on Climate and Nutrition and member of the panel, advocated for efforts to mitigate meat production and consumption in developed countries, as more sustainable diets are now required.

Adressing vulnerabilities
Within the countries, the most vulnerable groups and communities are also the ones which will have to deal with the most tremendous impacts: climate change will have direct consequences on the traditional lifestyles led by indigenous people, whose health and alimentation are directly connected to their environment, as Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Indigenous Women and Peoples Association of Chad, representative of the Mbororo tribe, explained. Climate change will, for instance, lead to a loss of medicinal plants, upon which many indigenous people rely on as their primary cures, for traditional reasons but also because health centers are often out of reach.
Environment and health are closely related: according to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of diseases in the world are caused by environmental factors. There is therefore no doubt that the impacts of climate change on health will be huge. Global warming will also lead to an increasing frequency and intensity of floods, which will favor the proliferation of insect-born and mosquito-caused diseases, such as the dengue, the chikungunya and the Zika virus, as well as favoring the apparition of new ones.

The Paris Agreement
This panel discussion on climate change of the UN Human Rights Council bears particular significance as it takes place only a few months after COP21 in which the highly praised Paris Agreement was adopted. The countries’ representatives and the panel all acknowledged the importance of this agreement, which appears as even more hopeful, positive and symbolic since the total failure of the Copenhagen Conference. The fact that the right to health was recognized was particularly appreciated, even though there were some regrets that it only figured in the introduction instead of, for instance, the Adaptation chapter, as Cristina Tirado remarked. Dainius Püras, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and member of the panel, also criticized the fact that the language used remained too vague – a diplomatic necessity in order to get so many countries with different interests to reach a compromise.
The Paris Agreement is seen in general as a welcome step forward, a good beginning that has to be followed by concrete measures. The policies that have to be implemented, in order for each country to meet its commitments, are what is really going to make a difference. If some countries' representatives praised the fact that the Agreement is legally binding, this statement needs to be qualified: indeed, the Agreement's application remains on a voluntary basis, and its core element non-binding. It’s not by chance that the carefully chosen words “encourage” and “participation” as well as “ambition” appear on a regular basis in the final draft. There are many reasons for that, one being that the United States vehemently opposed the idea of the agreement being a treaty in the conventional sense of the word, as it would therefore need to be ratified by the Republican Senate, which would never agree on anything binding.
In any way, it is always difficult to talk about a legally binding agreement in international law: even if the Agreement is considered to be legally binding, since all countries agreed on it, no international police force could surpass the countries’ sovereignty and take measures if they don’t meet their commitments. In December of 2011, Canada simply withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the first legally binding international agreement on climate change, since it did not reach its promised targets of greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  

How can developing countries conciliate their right for development and mitigation measures?
During the Council, the question of knowing how to conciliate development and mitigation measures for developing countries was raised. For Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a synergy between development, health and environment is needed. She deplores that less than twenty countries include gender equality, women being also more vulnerable to climate change for various reasons, among them the fact that poverty strikes them the most, and human rights in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).
Sustainable development is needed, as well as a real energy transition towards clean energy: some countries, which are notoriously difficult in international negotiations, are much more committed to an energy transition at the domestic level. China is a main example of this trend: their legislature is moving more and more towards a low-carbon based economy, and they seem to have reached the conclusion that adaptation can also be economically advantageous: today, they have largely developed their clean energy technologies, even though it’s mainly exported rather than locally used.  
The Green Fund, which developed countries have committed themselves to finance, the United States pledging 500 million of dollars, will be invaluable to help developing countries towards the path of energy transition without endangering the country’s right to develop and human rights.
 However, it must be noted that clean energy can also be detrimental to human rights and the environment. In Brazil, most of the energy is based on hydroelectricity, 80 percent coming from large dams. However, the Amazonian region contains 75 percent of the water of the country: deforestation and displacements of indigenous populations are claimed as being necessary by the Brazilian government in order to provide electricity to its population. It’s also an essential part of the country’s economy, as it is the second largest exporter of hydropower in the world, right after China.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim also mentioned the importance of the REDD+ program, in which developing countries taking action to reduce their deforestation and degradation rates are financially rewarded to the extent of the greenhouse gases reduction their forest conservation imply.


Implementing mitigation and adaptation measures
For the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Sustainable Development, a wide range of approaches are available in order for countries to mitigate and adapt. Building capacities, strengthening cooperation between actors, getting the private sector involved, and including local communities, since international decisions have to be implemented at the local level, are different ways to converge towards a more sustainable future in which, hopefully, climate change impacts would be reduced as much as possible and human rights taken into account.



Léa Guinet, Research Assistant for CIPADH



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