Upon his election, Emanuel Macron became a global star for his stand on climate action. He hosted the 2017 One Planet Summit which resolved to “make the planet green again” by taking urgent climate action, initiated the launch of Global Pact for the Environment and unveiled an ambitious strategy aimed at reducing GHG emissions by 75% in 2050 relative to 1990, partly by raising taxes on fuel. A year down the line, his country was burning. The “Yellow Vest” protests, provoked by the proposed increase in fuel taxes, were growing bigger and getting messier. The working class was not happy about the fuel taxes, life was already expensive and another tax could not make it any better.
This is not a scene particular to France alone, where response to climate change causes outrage among citizens. Although not at the same scale as the “Yellow Vest” protests, implementation of climate policies around the world has been subject to widespread objections, some of them even being challenged through litigation. One may ask, why does this happen? Is it that people do not want their governments to take action against climate change? Quite the contrary. This could happen when climate polices are implemented in disregard of their impacts on people’s livelihood and more importantly on human rights.
Climate policies have the potential of threatening human rights. Leaving the French example aside, bio-fuel policies, which are aimed at reducing GHGs by providing carbon neutral fuel, could threaten the right to food by reducing the land available for food production and increasing food prices. This is especially where the biofuels are derived from crops that have traditionally been used for food (such as maize and sugarcane) or where the land for food production is diverted to cultivation of biofuel crops. Another example is the forestry sector – when governments establish protected areas over forests occupied or used by indigenous people and other forest dependent communities, this could displace such communities and ultimately make them lose their source of livelihood like what happened to the pygmies when “conservation” programmes were implemented in Congo Basin.
While it is necessary for states to take ambitious climate action, there need not to be a choice between climate policies and human rights but rather climate action and human rights should go hand in hand. One important aspect is to balance societal interests and ensure that climate action does not disproportionally burden the vulnerable in the society. The French situation is a clear example that climate change response should consider the needs of the society and particularly impacts on those already struggling economically. For instance, increasing the fuel tax in France would disproportionally burden the working class who cannot afford living in cities where public transport is well connected. They mostly live in the suburbs with poor public transport connection therefore depending on their cars to travel to work. Requiring the already burdened segment of the society to pay the price for decarbonisation would only deepen the already existing inequalities, which should not be the aim of climate policies.
It is also relevant to consider and uphold procedural rights in climate policy implementation. Particularly, participation of those likely to be affected by such policies is paramount. Participation is not only about consultation and “seeking views” but rather includes the right to access accurate information and involving those likely to be affected in planning, designing and implementing the policies. Involving the public from policy planning to implementation not only increases public acceptance but could also contribute to higher ambition and improve the effectiveness of such climate responses.
One of the sectors where the international community has placed safeguards to ensure climate action and human rights go hand in hand is forestry and land use, known as the REDD+ safeguards. The safeguards aim to ensure that implementation of deforestation prevention initiatives respect the knowledge and rights of indigenous people and traditional communities and promote effective participation of local communities. While the implementation of the safeguards has been a challenge to some countries, this has led to equitable share of benefits from deforestation prevention programs with local communities in certain countries while increasing participation and including traditional governance structure in implementation of forest management programs.
Consequently, response to climate change does not need to be at crossroads with human rights. It is quite mistaken to assume that addressing climate change is solely about making the planet green, but rather it should also be about realising human rights and making livelihoods great too.