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The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was the first universal, legally binding climate change agreement to explicitly include human rights.[1] The preamble of the agreement states that “climate change is a common concern of humankind” and adds “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights…

The Government has cited this reference when discussing COP26, the climate change conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, said “human rights are a cross-cutting consideration in all climate action.” Nigel Adams, Minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, says the Government is calling on States “to address the human rights implications of climate change and ensure that any action taken to respond to climate change complies with their human rights obligations.”

A major UN scientific report recently warned the global temperature is expected to reach 1.5°C of warming between 2030 to 2035. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth report, released on 9 August, says this means increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding.

Access to clean water and sanitation, food, shelter and other basic human needs may all be detrimentally affected by these changes, meaning people may be left without access to basic human needs. Amnesty International says the climate emergency “is a human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

In a 2015 report The UN Environment Programme’s executive director described climate change as “one of the greatest threats to human rights of our generation.” However, Achim Steiner also observed that while the UN and governments acknowledge climate change can impact human rights “there is less agreement on the corresponding obligations of governments and private actors to address this problem.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has identified the human rights which are most affected by climate change, including the right to life, development, food, health, water and sanitation, housing and cultural rights. The Office also identifies indigenous peoples, women, children, migrants and internally displaced persons and persons with disabilities as the groups most affected by climate change. It also describes what a human rights-based approach to climate change looks like:

Human rights can be integrated in climate change-related actions by applying a rights-based approach to policy and development.

[…]

The rights-based approach requires States to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all human rights for all persons. This includes preventing foreseeable human rights harms caused by climate change or, at the very least, mobilizing the maximum available resources in an effort to do so.[2]

Tackling climate change will be the UK Government’s “number one international priority.” The Government’s “Global Britain in a Competitive Age” (March 2021) report acknowledged that climate change will “cause increasing damage” with the effects felt most acutely in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia and the Middle East. The Government confirmed its commitment to aligning all UK ODA (Official Development Assistance) with the Paris Agreement “reflecting our commitment to tackling climate change and its effect as a driver of future instability and poverty.” The Integrated Review in March 2021 also said it would “mainstream nature into all government policy.” A new aid strategy is expected in late 2021, which is likely to set out in further detail how the Government intends to meet these commitments in practice. When alignment with the Paris Agreement was announced in 2019, the Government cited four examples:

(1) use of carbon pricing in bilateral programme appraisals (2) ensuring investment for fossil fuels is in line with Paris temperature goals (3) a proportionate approach to climate risk assessment and (4) ensuring programmes don’t undermine countries’ NDC [Nationally-Determined Contributions to emissions reduction] and adaptation plans.

However, the Government’s decision to reduce ODA spending in 2021, allocating 0.5 percent of GNI (Gross National Income) rather than the 0.7 percent UN target it has previously met, has been widely criticised. The International Development Committee (IDC) Chair, Sarah Champion MP, said the reduction threatened the UK’s role as a “development superpower” and would undermine the UK’s assumption in 2021 of the G7 presidency and host of the COP 26 conference on climate change.[3] Climate and biodiversity is one of the FCDO’s seven priorities for ODA spending, allocating £534 million in 2021/22.[4] This is the third highest amount allocated for a thematic area (behind humanitarian preparedness and the response to the Coronavirus pandemic).

The Library has collated a range of Parliamentary briefings and publications on climate change. This includes the Library series of Climate Change Explainers along with an explanation of UK climate change policy. It also provides resources on COP 26, including Library paper COP26: the international climate change conference, Glasgow, UK which discusses the UK’s priorities for the conference and a brief overview of previous COPs.

[1]   “Integrating human rights at the UNFCCC”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed 13 August 2021

[2]   “Frequently asked questions on human rights and climate change”, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2021

[3]   International Development Committee, Chair statement on UK’s ODA commitment reduction, 25 November 2020

[4]   HCWS935 [Official Development Assistance Budget 2021-22}, 21 April 2021. See also Commons Library Research Briefing CBP-9224, Reducing the UK’s aid spending in 2021, 20 July 2021.


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