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Thought leadership

Climate change and human rights

EOS Insight
22 October 2020 |
The climate crisis has already displaced millions of people due to flooding, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee from deadly wildfires. Pauline Lecoursonnois explores what companies can do to assess and mitigate climate-related human rights risks.

Fast reading

  • Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration
  • Climate breakdown threatens the right to life, health, food, water and sanitation
  • Companies should incorporate climate-related human rights issues into their due diligence frameworks

Climate change is not only having a devastating impact on the environment, it is also a human rights issue.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that humanity is exposed to an increased frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events, including flooding, heatwaves, droughts and storm surges. We are also seeing rising sea levels, wildfires, increased air pollution, desertification, water shortages, biodiversity loss and the spreading of vector-borne diseases. The climate crisis exacerbates existing vulnerabilities and tensions as well as causing new ones.

According to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, some of the human rights threatened and violated by climate breakdown are the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, an adequate standard of living, housing, property, self-determination, development and culture. The climate crisis is already a harsh daily reality for hundreds of millions of people, from rural residents suffering from drought and crop failures to coastal residents threatened by sea level rises.

Increasingly, climate change is an important contributor to displacement and migration, both within nations and across international borders. This year we have seen serious flooding and wildfires around the world. These events have displaced millions of people in South Asia, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in Australia, in Sudan and on the west coast of the United States.

As climate activist Greta Thunberg has warned us, our house is on fire. In the next 50 years, a third of the world’s population could be living in areas as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara are now. Often the people and countries on the front line of climate change are the ones who contributed least to its causes, but they will face the biggest challenges in adapting to it.

Time for action

Urgent and effective action is required. The UN’s Special Rapporteur has identified four main categories:

  • mitigation measures starting with phasing out fossil fuels,
  • adaptation to protect vulnerable people,
  • ramping up climate finance, and
  • financing loss and damage.

First, the most effective action companies must take to limit their impact on human rights is to reduce their direct emissions and those from their value chain.

To prevent and address human rights abuses, best practice is for companies to refer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which was unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. These guidelines are based on three main principles: Protect, Respect and Remedy. According to the Reporting Framework, the first step of human rights due diligence is the identification of the company’s salient human rights issues – those human rights that are at risk of the most severe negative impact through the company’s activities or business relationships.

To properly manage all potential human rights risks, a holistic and sophisticated approach is necessary. Companies should incorporate climate-related human rights issues into their due diligence frameworks, by considering those who are most vulnerable to physical climate impacts and those who may be adversely impacted by the energy transition. Such strategies should be informed by forward-looking scenario analysis to better understand the potential effects of the climate crisis, and to help identify the most climate-vulnerable communities. Once priorities have been set, more targeted strategies can be developed. Investments in nature-based solutions, for example, can deliver many benefits including more resilient local communities.

The support of the financial community and the development of non-traditional financial instruments, such as public-private blended finance initiatives, will also play a central role in scaling up efforts to include local communities in mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Case study: General Mills

EOS at Federated Hermes has had a longstanding engagement with food manufacturer General Mills. In Q3 2020 it told us that it is conducting a significant project to review its human rights risks through the lens of the UN Guiding Principles. We also welcomed its announcement during Climate Week of its revised climate targets. These are more ambitious than those it announced when it became the first company to set an approved Science-Based Target across Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions in 2015.

Given the company’s climate leadership, we expect that its review of human rights risks will explore the nexus and interrelationship between climate and human rights risks. We expect climate change to increase human rights risks, not least in the agricultural sector, on which General Mills depends. For example, increased drought could lead to the impoverishment and migration of communities who depend on the land for their livelihood, raising the risk of forced and child labour.

General Mills is already encouraging large-scale regenerative agriculture practices to make its value chain more resilient to climate change. Such work may also have beneficial human rights impacts, so we expect the company to develop its strategy not only to mitigate climate change but also to improve human rights outcomes and help with a just climate transition. We will continue to engage with the company on these two huge risks to itself and the wider economy.

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