United Nations

INTERVIEW: Connection between human rights and climate change ‘must not be denied’

The right to life, food, development, self-determination, water and sanitation, and adequate housing, is being denied to millions of people because of climate change, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights in the context of Climate Change, has told the General Assembly in his first formal report to the body.

Ian Fry, Australian National University Professor and Tuvalu’s former ambassador for Climate Change for over 21 years, was appointed in May by the UN Human Rights Council, as the first Special Rapporteur on climate, following the overwhelming vote to recognize the Right to a Healthy Environment, in 2021.

“Human-induced climate change is the largest, most pervasive threat to the natural environment and societies the world has ever experienced, and the poorest countries are paying the heaviest price”, the expert told delegates.

Mr. Fry highlighted the “enormous injustice” perpetrated by rich countries and major corporations, which are not acting to reduce their greenhouse emissions, and consequently failing the poorest and least able to cope.

“The G20 members, for instance, account for 78 per cent of emissions over the last decade”, he underscored.

The Special Rapporteur sat down with UN News before delivering his report, which focuses on three areas: mitigation action, loss and damage, access and inclusion, and the protection of climate rights defenders.

He spoke about what he hopes the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Egypt (COP27) will achieve, addressed some of the climate-action challenges given the war in Ukraine, and shared some of the recommendations he made to member states, including the call for a High-Level Forum to be held next year.

Ian Fry, Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, sits down for an interview with UN News.
UN Video screenshot
Ian Fry, Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, sits down for an interview with UN News.

UN NEWS: Can you please explain what is the focus of your first report to the General Assembly?

IAN FRY: The main issues are those coming up at the COP in Egypt.

First, issues around improving action on mitigation to get countries to commit to more action. We know that there’s not enough being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so I want to bring attention to that and look at the human rights implications of not doing enough on climate change.

The next issue is precisely the consequences of that, and I’m looking at the issue of loss and damage. These are the huge impacts that countries are suffering as a consequence of climate change and the huge costs that are involved. To date, there have been discussions around establishing a Loss and Damage fund, but that’s been moving very slowly, so I’m hoping to build further momentum to work on getting that fund agreed, and up and running.

The final issue is around access and inclusion. This is getting people who are most affected by climate change to be able to present their voices to climate change meetings. This is women, children, youth, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, all the groups that are right at the forefront of climate change and human rights impacts. We need to find ways of getting their voice into the climate change process.

UN NEWS: What is the connection between human rights and these issues we see related to climate action

If we think about the floods in Nigeria and Pakistan, and the severe drought that’s occurring in Somalia now, people’s human rights are being affected as a consequence of climate change.

These are millions of people around the world whose basic enjoyment of human rights is being affected. So, we have to make that connection, we have to put a human face to climate change.

On 3 September 2022, four-year-old Rahim stands on the rubble of his house, destroyed by the floods in Pakistan.
© UNICEF/Asad Zaidi
On 3 September 2022, four-year-old Rahim stands on the rubble of his house, destroyed by the floods in Pakistan.

UN NEWS: In the last UN Climate Conference, which was held in Glasgow in 2021, member states signed a declaration which finalized the negotiations of outstanding terms of the Paris Agreement. What do you expect countries will be speaking about during the upcoming COP in Egypt?

Well, there are a number of issues on the table. We’re leading up to what’s called the Global Stocktake [in 2023], this is a review of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. So, there are processes involved in establishing this review process.

I think that the crunch issue will be around this whole loss and damage debate. We’ve seen pushback by some key countries around advancing the issue, but the developing countries have unanimously said “we want loss and damage on the agenda” and civil society is saying the same thing.

UN NEWS: And what are the challenges regarding the loss and damage issue?

Well, there are major developed countries that are quite concerned about it and looking at this issue from the perspective of what the polluter pays. At the moment, the countries most affected by climate change and suffering the costs are having to deal with those costs themselves.

I was recently in Bangladesh and saw firsthand the impacts of climate change. And it’s unfair for countries like Bangladesh to have to deal with the cost of climate change on their own, which is not of their own making. So, the most vulnerable countries produce the least amount of emissions, yet they’re paying the cost of the damage from climate change.

So, it’s time the big countries, the major emitters, stood up and said, “we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to make a contribution to these vulnerable countries”.

Villagers in Pakistan’s Khairpur Mirs District in Sindh province cross flooded land to get to their homes.
© UNFPA / Shehzad Noorani
Villagers in Pakistan’s Khairpur Mirs District in Sindh province cross flooded land to get to their homes.

UN NEWS: For you what would be the best outcome of this COP?

I’ve put forward a number of recommendations in my report. One of them is to commence a process to establish this Loss and Damage Fund.

We also must have a process to ensure greater participation, particularly for civil society, youth, and women groups, and to open up the COP to these groups to have a better say.

I would also like to see a revision of the Gender Action Plan since it’s quite old, it’s not well-developed. We know that there are critical issues of climate change impacts on women and young people, and those issues need to be brought and put forward onto the Agenda and Action Plan developed to address those issues.

There is a whole host of other issues that I’m looking at advancing. For example, the issue of increasing mitigation. I’m trying to suggest that parties should call for the UN Secretary-General to hold a special summit next year on ramping up pledging to reduce their emissions.

So hopefully that will come forward as well.

An aerial view of N'djamena following heavy rains in August 2022.
IOM/Anne Schaefer
An aerial view of N’djamena following heavy rains in August 2022.

UN NEWS: Since the Right to a Healthy Environment was declared a Universal Human Right, have you seen any changes implemented by countries?

I think countries are starting to see how they can implement that resolution. There’s certainly dialogue within countries.

I know the European Union is having discussions about how to incorporate that resolution within their national legislation, within constitutions. And I think regional bodies are also looking at that to develop regional agreements that bring on board that resolution.

UN NEWS: Do you think is possible at this point to keep the goal of curbing global warming to 1,5 degrees?

Well, it’s a challenge. We’re not seeing that with the current Nationally Determined Contributions and the sort of commitments that have been made by countries.

We’re heading on a pathway towards two to three degrees Celsius, so there has to be a lot more action to get countries to reduce their emissions.

The complication, of course, is the Ukraine war, where we’re seeing countries sort of having to find old sources of fossil fuel energy to replace what they’ve been deprived of, as a consequence of the war. So that’s the problem, and that’s been a distraction as well.

However, there’s a good side to it, I think countries are also saying that they need to be self-sufficient in energy and the cheapest way to do so is with renewable energy.

And we’re seeing Portugal moving towards 100 per cent renewable, we know Denmark is also doing that, and I think that will drive other countries to see the need to be renewable and self-sufficient in their energy.

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