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Six things countries must do to protect human rights at COP24

By Chiara Liguori, Policy adviser on environment and children's rights, Amnesty International

Poland is hosting COP24, the most important UN climate change conference since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015.

Delegates from around the world have gathered in the town of Katowice, until 14 December, to produce a “rule book” that would flesh out details of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the rise in global average temperatures to between 1.5 and 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Millions of people are already suffering from the catastrophic effects of extreme climate-related disasters -- from prolonged drought in Africa to devastating cyclones sweeping across South East Asia. In fact, during the summer months for the Northern Hemisphere this year, communities across the Arctic circle to Greece, Japan Pakistan, and the USA, experienced devastating heatwaves that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Countless homes have also been destroyed as a result of climate-related catastrophes. In 2012 New York was severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy, a storm that was made worse because of climate change, which destroyed at least 650,000 homes. Across the other side of the world, in Indonesia, roughly 40% of its capital city, Jakarta, is below sea level, resulting in homes across the north of the city experiencing regular flooding.

Governments must act urgently to protect people -- or bear the responsibility for loss of life and the violation of people’s rights to health, food, water and housing, among others.

What can countries do to protect human rights at COP24?

1) Endorse the need for more ambitious targets to cut emissions and limit the increase in global average temperatures.

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning that we are on course to exceed the 1.5°C target between 2030 and 2052, and hit 3°C by the end of this century – if carbon emissions continue at their present rate.

Keeping global warming below the 1.5°C threshold could make a massive difference. For example, the IPCC study predicts that by 2100, sea level rise would be around 0.1 meter lower with a 1.5°C scenario compared to 2°C. This would mean approximately 10 million people, equivalent to the population size of Sweden or Jordan, could face fewer climate-related risks such as flooding or displacement.

The IPCC report makes clear that a 1.5°C target should no longer be an aspiration, it is an absolute must. By allowing global average temperatures to reach their current level, of 1°C above pre-industrial levels, states, particularly developed states, have already failed in their human rights obligations. To avoid allowing catastrophic harms, governments must halve global carbon emissions in the next 12 years to avoid exceeding the 1.5°C threshold.  

2) Adopt a comprehensive and robust set of guidelines to implement the Paris Agreement

The “rule book” under discussion in Katowice is intended to turn the Paris Agreement into action.

The 2015 pact will only work if is fully implemented. There should be no loopholes for governments to shirk their duties.

It is crucial that COP24 adopts a robust set of implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement, to ensure that states change their policies and practices to reflect their commitment to protecting present and future generations from the dangers of climate change.

3) Incorporate references in these guidelines to the importance of human rights 

The preamble of the Paris Agreement recognizes the importance of countries respecting, promoting and considering human rights when taking action to address climate change.

It specifically mentions the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity. 

States must meaningfully incorporate this recognition of human rights into their blueprints for implementation. States must adopt this approach because doing so would give more opportunities for those directly affected by climate change to participate in decisions impacting their futures, and thereby ensure that everyone’s human rights are taken into account. 

4) Ensure a just transition out of industries like coal mining so that no one is left behind

To address climate change, countries around the world, including Poland, Australia, China, Brazil, India and the USA, will need to phase out fossil fuel industries in a way that genuinely protects the future of miners and mining communities.

The Polish government has presented the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration for adoption at COP24. 

The Declaration recognizes the challenges for cities, sectors and local authorities that are dependent on fossil fuels. It calls on governments to ensure a decent future for workers and communities affected by the transition to low carbon emissions – by protecting their rights and well-being.

Amnesty International supports the Declaration because it is vital that as governments transition our economies away from fossil fuels, they account for the human rights impacts on everybody. That includes the rights of workers who could be negatively impacted by such a transition – governments must not leave anyone behind. They must ensure the creation of alternative decent work and quality jobs and assist displaced workers with the necessary training and support to access such jobs as a priority.

Such an approach also underpins the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals both of which emphasise the need to integrate sustainable development and the eradication of poverty with addressing of climate change and protection of the environment.

5) Ensure that local communities and Indigenous people are involved 

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples platform was established in recognition of the need to support engagement and cooperation with local and Indigenous communities in addressing and responding to climate change.

The platform’s purpose is three-fold:

  • To strengthen the knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples related to addressing and responding to climate change,
  • To facilitate the exchange of experience and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned on mitigation and adaptation in a holistic and integrated manner, and
  • To enhance the engagement of local communities and indigenous peoples in the UNFCCC process

The platform was introduced at the UN climate change summit in Bonn three years ago. It is essential that those working on climate change policies and actions integrate the diverse knowledge and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular that of free, prior and informed consent, while facilitating stronger and more ambitious climate action by them.

6) Stress Poland’s obligation to respect the right to freedom of assembly and expression

Earlier this year the Polish government adopted a bill that prevents activists, NGOs and the public from holding spontaneous assemblies outside COP24. Only demonstrations approved in advance by the city authorities will be allowed.

The bill also gives police extra powers to put conference participants under enhanced surveillance without their knowledge. It comes in the context of the Polish government’s escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, characterized by a raft of legislation aimed at curbing women’s rights and undermining the independence of the judiciary.

Climate policy making can only be effective when civil society and NGOs participate fully - the principles of transparency and participation are cornerstones of every country’s human rights obligations.