School of Law and Human Rights Centre Host Workshop on Human Rights and Climate Change

Image by Marek Matecki

By Dr. Stephen Turner, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Essex and Dr. Birsha Ohdedar, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

On 30 April and 1 May 2020, the University of Essex (School of Law and Human Rights Centre) hosted a workshop on the subject of Human Rights and Climate Change.

Owing to the Covid 19 crisis it was necessary to hold the event as a webinar rather than an in person event at the university itself.  However, this had the welcome side-effect of providing the opportunity for more students, scholars and experts than had originally been anticipated to engage and participate in the discussions.

The intention behind the workshop was to provide a forum for debate relating to certain practical themes within the relationship between human rights and climate change where further clarification of state responsibilities is still required.

Over the last ten years, the United Nations (UN) has acknowledged the strong links between human rights and climate change. In particular the Human Rights Council has issued numerous reports elaborating on those links and it has encouraged further work on the subject.

At the domestic level, many countries have environmental rights incorporated into their constitutions. The Paris Agreement acknowledged the human rights impacts of climate change and in 2019 the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment (Dr David Boyd), issued a report that asserted that people have the ‘right to a safe climate’.

However, despite the variety of developments that have taken place in the field within a relatively short space of time, there is still much work that needs to be done to further elucidate the content of  human rights responsibilities that states have relating to climate change and the ways that they should implement them.

Therefore, this workshop provided a focal point for debate related to specific areas where clarification is required. As the solutions to the issues in question inevitably require non-legal expertise to inform our understanding of the way that  law should be developed, the workshop brought together a uniquely interdisciplinary group of participants from law, policy, engineering, science, public health, urban planning and architecture. In bridging the gap between law and other disciplines it is hoped that the workshop contributed to the development of collaborative inter-disciplinary approaches in the field.

The organisers of the workshop would like to thank all those who participated by giving presentations or chairing sessions, also the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex; the Centre for Architecture and Sustainable Environment (CASE) at the University of Kent; The Eastern ARC Fund for its invaluable support and all those, from many different parts of the world, who attended the event.

The following provides a summary of the panel sessions that were held over the two days:

Panel 1: Institutional Understandings of the Relationship Between Human Rights and Climate Change

The first panel brought together the first two UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights and the Environment: Prof. John Knox (2012-2018) and Dr David R. Boyd (2018- present). The panel was chaired by Prof. Erin Daly (Widener University).

Prof. Knox traced and explained and provided insights relating to the history of the relationship between human rights and climate at the institutional level up until 2015. Dr Boyd then gave an account of the developments that have been taking place since the Paris Agreement along with an explanation of the work that he has undertaken in his role as the UN Special Rapporteur.

Panel 2: Human Rights, Climate Change and Transitions to a Low-Carbon Urban Environments

This session brought together experts from the diverse fileds of urban planning, architecture, engineering and law to discuss the challenges of developing low-carbon cities (particularly in the Global South) and the role that human rights should play in that process.  Speakers in this panel were: Dr. Silvio Caputo (University of Kent), Dr. Ruchi Choudhury (Cambridge) and Ms Naysa Ahuja (World Bank).

A video for this panel is not available.

Panel 3: Litigation on Human Rights and Climate Change

This panel focussed on the recent growth in climate change litigation around the world, taking stock of the role that human rights have played in it. Attention was given to litigation both at the international and domestic level, across different countries.

Speakers in this panel were: Ingrid Gubbay (Hausfeld LLP), Prof. James R. May (Widener University), Richard Lord QC and the panel was chaired by Prof. Karen Hulme (University of Essex).

Panel 4: Climate Change and Rights-Based Approaches to Public Health

The fourth panel focussed on understanding the role that rights-based approaches can have in addressing climate-related public health issues and the role that international health institutions should play in developing climate change policy. The panel covered the role of the WHO, the development of benchmarks and standards, as well as recent litigation related to air pollution and public health in a climate context.

There were three speakers: Dr. Stephen Turner (University of Essex), Judith Bueno De Mesquita (University of Essex) and Sam Varvastian (University of Cardiff). The panel was chaired by Dr. Avidan Kent (University of East Anglia).

Panel 5: Conflict and Contestations Around Human Rights and Climate Change

The final session of the workshop problematised the idea of a straight-forward relationship between climate change and human rights. Contributions examined the ways human rights may conflict with certain climate change mitigation or adaptation actions, covering a wide range of topics from renewable energy to migration and transport. Panellists considered the pathways towards equitable outcomes and examined these from regional perspectives that included sub-saharan Africa, South America and the Pacific.

The four speakers in this panel were: Dr. Annalisa Savaresi (University of Sterling), Dr. Thoko Kaime (University of Essex),  Patricia Iturregui (Catholic University of Peru) and Shanna McClain (NASA). The panel was chaired by Dr. Emily Jones (University of Essex).

Future Plans

A similar workshop is planned for the summer of 2021. More information will be made available in due course.

There are also plans to further collaborate with other institutions to develop inter-disciplinary workstreams that look at the practical application of human rights in tackling climate change.

If you are interested in knowing more or collaborating in the future, please get in touch with Dr. Stephen Turner or Dr. Birsha Ohdedar.

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