Business responsibilities for climate change: U.S. Roundtable nods, U.N. sets a high bar

The U.S. Business Roundtable generated headlines and surprised reaction with the August 19th release of a new Statement of Purpose,  signed by 181 CEO’s of high-profile companies including Amazon, Walmart, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin, Morgan Stanley, UPS, and others. That statement redefines their shared, overarching corporate goal from “delivering value for shareholders” to  promoting “An Economy That Serves All Americans” – including by: “supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.” …“Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.”

The full Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, with signatories, is here ;  case studies of member corporations’ social responsibility initiatives are outlined in Building Communities, Meeting Challenges .

A higher bar for business

In contrast to the Business Roundtable statement, scant attention was paid to an international call for human rights and climate justice, released in July. The Safe Climate Report  provides a guide to the obligations of States and the responsibilities of businesses under international agreements and law, regarding the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation, rights of the child, right to a healthy environment, and rights of vulnerable populations.

The Safe Climate Report, as well as the June 2019 U.N. Report  on extreme poverty and climate change by Philip Alston, are the subject of a September 4 article in The Conversation Canadian edition, “Climate change, poverty and human rights: an emergency without precedent” . The authors state that “The Alston report suggests that the only way to address the human rights dimensions of climate crisis is for states to effectively regulate businesses and for those harmed by climate change to successfully sue responsible companies in court. ….  “the Safe Climate report goes further…”

Specifically, the Safe Climate Report states:

“Businesses must adopt human rights policies, conduct human rights due diligence, remedy human rights violations for which they are directly responsible, and work to influence other actors to respect human rights where relationships of leverage exist. As a first step, corporations should comply with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as they pertain to human rights and climate change…. The five main responsibilities of businesses specifically related to climate change are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their own activities and their subsidiaries; reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their products and services; minimize greenhouse gas emissions from their suppliers; publicly disclose their emissions, climate vulnerability and the risk of stranded assets; and ensure that people affected by business-related human rights violations have access to effective remedies.90 In addition, businesses should support, rather than oppose, public policies intended to effectively address climate change.”  (page 19/20).

Legal obligations of States:

The discussion in this report is also highly relevant to any litigation against states or companies regarding climate change, as well as for the rights of Indigenous peoples and children.  Boyd concludes:

“A failure to fulfill international climate change commitments is a prima facie violation of the State’s obligations to protect the human rights of its citizens. As global average temperatures rise, even more people’s rights will be violated, and the spectre of catastrophic runaway climate chaos increases. There is an immense gap between what is needed to seriously tackle the global climate emergency and what is being done.

A dramatic change of direction is needed. To comply with their human rights obligations, developed States and other large emitters must reduce their emissions at a rate consistent with their international commitments. To meet the Paris target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, States must submit ambitious nationally determined contributions by 2020 that will put the world on track to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 per cent by 2030 (as calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). All States should prepare rights-based deep decarbonization plans intended to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in accordance with article 4, paragraph 19, of the Paris Agreement. Four main categories of actions must be taken: addressing society’s addiction to fossil fuels; accelerating other mitigation actions; protecting vulnerable people from climate impacts; and providing unprecedented levels of financial support to least developed countries and small island developing States.”

The Safe Climate Report  (formally titled The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment)  was submitted to the U.N. General Assembly,  written by Canadian human rights scholar and U.N. Special Rapporteur David R. Boyd, whose 2012 book, The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights and the Environment,  stands as a landmark study in environmental law.  The Special Rapporteur’s Report was informed by a consultation period in 2019 in which States and organizations were invited to participate – the few which did are posted here . (Neither  Canada nor the U.S. were among the countries which submitted).  Two noteworthy organizational submissions available are from Canada’s Ecojustice, and Our Children’s Trust (U.S.)  on the issue of intergenerational responsibility and youth. A separate report by Special Rapporteur John Knox discussed The Children’s Rights and the Environment in 2018, and it may be significant the  concluding sentence of the Safe Climate Report uses Greta Thunberg’s famous words,  “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Climate apartheid and chaos – U.N. official warns that only the rich will escape poverty, disease and displacement

mumbai floods 2019It appears that Greta Thunberg is not the only person willing to speak truth to power. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights for the United Nations, officially tabled a report at the U.N. on June 28.  Although the title, Climate Change and Poverty, sounds like another bureaucratic exercise, his language is urgent and blunt.

The full report is available from this link at the U.N. press release.   Some excerpts :

 

“Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. …It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work….

We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer… The risk of community discontent, of growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups, will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses. Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex…

…Staying the course will be disastrous for the global economy and pull vast numbers into poverty. Addressing climate change will require a fundamental shift in the global economy, decoupling improvements in economic well-being from fossil fuel emissions. It is imperative this is done in a way that provides necessary support, protects workers, and creates decent work.

Governments, and too many in the human rights community, have failed to seriously address climate change for decades. Somber speeches by government officials have not led to meaningful action and too many countries continue taking short-sighted steps in the wrong direction…..Although climate change has been on the human rights agenda for well over a decade, it remains a marginal concern for most actors. Yet it represents an emergency without precedent and requires bold and creative thinking from the human rights community, and a radically more robust, detailed, and coordinated approach.

… incremental managerialism and proceduralism ..are entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat. Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster.”

Summaries from the media appear in: “To Prevent ‘Climate Apartheid Scenario’ Where Rich Escape and Poor Suffer, UN Report Issues Urgent Call for Global Economic Justice” in Common Dreams (June 25) and  “‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive” in The Guardian .

Global Renewable Energy industry lacks human rights and labour rights protections

Renewable energy BHRRC cover part 2London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) released a new report on September 5th : Renewable Energy Risking Rights & Returns: An analysis of solar, bioenergy & geothermal companies’ human rights commitments  . The report analyses 59 companies’ human rights policies and practices on five key areas: human rights commitment, community consultations, grievance mechanisms, labour rights and supply chain monitoring. It concludes that  “The current level of commitment by the majority of renewable energy companies is insufficient to prevent, address and mitigate human rights harms, especially as the sector rapidly expands.”

Concerning labour rights, only 36% of renewable energy companies were found to have policies committing them to core labour rights such as collective bargaining and freedom of association, 42% commit to  the prohibition of child labour and 41% to prohibition of  forced labour and modern slavery.  An aspect with resonance for Canadians, in light of the recent federal Court of Appeal decision against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, the report found that “less than 30% (17 out of 59) of renewable energy companies have a stated commitment to consultation with communities affected by their projects. Only 8 companies reference indigenous peoples’ rights and 4 companies have a commitment to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities.”  Overall,  47% of companies do not have basic human rights commitments or processes in place, and only 5 companies met a set of basic criteria on human rights, community consultation and access to remedy. These findings are consistent with a previous BHRRC  survey, reported in 2016.

Based  on its extensive research of the mining industry, BHRRC also states that “failure to respect human rights can result in project delays, legal procedures and costs for renewable energy companies, underlying the urgency to strengthen human rights due diligence.”   It calls for investors to step up their engagement in renewable energy companies to ensure better respect for human rights.

Read the press release here  for a summary of the report, and explore ongoing monitoring of human rights in the renewable energy sector here.

U.N. Working Group makes recommendations to protect human rights, labour rights in Canada

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a  Statement at the end of visit to Canada by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights on June 1. This is a preliminary document – the official mission report will be presented to the 38th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2018, and should be worth watching for.  The preliminary Statement provides a summary of the results of fact-finding meetings with government officials, business organizations related to Canada’s mining and oil and gas industries, and Indigenous people. Most importantly, it makes a number of recommendations regarding human rights, labour rights, environmental and social impact consultation, and the right to consult for Indigenous people.

Some Highlights:

“Part of the backdrop to our visit were visible protests by indigenous communities to several large-scale development projects, such as the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, the construction a large-scale hydroelectric dam (Site C Dam), and continued expansion of development projects of extractives industries. Several of these cases have also been repeatedly raised by UN human rights human rights mechanisms, such as the situation of the Lubicon Cree Nation, whose territories are affected by extensive oil sands extraction. In several indigenous territories, extensive mining and oil and gas extraction are accompanied by significant adverse environmental impacts affecting the right to health.”

Regarding the established “duty to consult” with Indigenous people regarding mining projects, the Working Group encourages the Canadian government to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 and for provincial and the federal government to promote more inclusive consultation regarding development projects.

The Working Group also urges the federal government to “follow up” on the April 2017 recommendations by the Expert Panel regarding Environmental Assessment in Building Common Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada  “to include indigenous peoples in decision-making at all stages through a collaborative process that is developed in partnership with impacted indigenous communities.”

Regarding the dam breach and tailings spill at the Mount Polley mine, the Working Group states: “We encourage the British Columbia government to complete expeditiously the impact study, continue to monitor closely the short-term and long-terms impacts of the tailings discharge, and communicate more widely their findings and proposed actions. Moreover, the provincial government should consult more broadly with indigenous communities who may have concerns about the breach and its impact on their lives. We also recommend the British Columbia government to consider establishing an independent body to assume compliance and monitoring of mining regulations, as recommended in the Auditor General’s report”.

Regarding the Westray Law, the Working Group states: “We heard concerns that the Westray law is not being properly implemented and enforced. We heard that there was a lack of coordination between key government parties, to secure sites of industrial accidents, for further investigation and inspection. We note that the Government of Alberta recently signed a new memorandum of understanding with ten police forces and Alberta Justice,  that defines protocols for notification, investigation and communication between departments when there is a serious workplace incident. Other provinces should follow Alberta’s lead”.

Regarding the need to protect the right to peaceful protest: “During our visit, we were told of the criminalization of peaceful protests and the use of security personnel and police to break up and arrest activists who were exercising their democratic right to protest against extractive projects both within and outside Canada. The government should work all relevant stakeholders to ensure more space for peaceful dissent and protest at home and abroad.”  And also: referring to Ontario and Quebec,  “we would encourage other provincial governments to develop similar Anti-SLAPP legislation. “

In conclusion: The Working Group revives a 2006 proposal for an Ombudsperson with a mandate to investigate allegations of business-related human rights abuse, and “we encourage the federal government to work together with provincial governments to develop a comprehensive national action plan on business and human rights. ”

For Oxfam Canada’s summary of the Working Group, see the Huffington Post article here , and here for the reaction of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability .

The Working Group Statement was also concerned with human rights abuses overseas by Canadian mining companies: see the analysis of the Working Group statement by Human Rights Watch here, or see “The ‘Canada Brand’: Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America“,  an extensive report in the Osgoode Law  Research Paper Series (December 2016).

Still advocating for Environmental Rights as Human Rights. Evidence from Alberta, and innovative proposals for Nova Scotia

The Pembina Institute recently compiled three case studies related to energy development in Alberta, in an effort to document the adverse effects on individuals, communities and regions that result from weak environmental laws or regulatory enforcement.  The Environmental Law Centre in  Alberta also  published a series of reports in late 2016, including a module, Substantive Environmental Rights , which discusses environmental rights as a human right. Since 2014, the Blue Dot campaign, led by the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice ,  has been advocating for environmental rights to be enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Now, from the Pembina Institute comes The Right to a Healthy Environment: Documenting the need for environmental rights in Canada.  It consists of:  Case Study #1:  Individual impacts of intensive hydraulic fracturing activity in rural Alberta   ;  #2 Community impacts of air pollution in urban central Alberta (related to coal-fired electricity plants), and #3 Regional impacts of oilsands development in northern Alberta   (which examines the rights of First Nations).

In Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Environmental Rights Working Group of the East Coast Environmental Law Association  released their proposed and innovative  Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights  on April 21 2017.  The bill states that the people “have a right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”, and that the “primary responsibility” to protect and conserve that environment falls to the province.  It also states that “there is a history of environmental racism in Nova Scotia that has disproportionately and negatively affected historically marginalized, vulnerable, and economically disadvantaged individuals, groups or communities, particularly Indigenous People and African Nova Scotians”.  The bill is based on the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle, the Non-Regression Principle, the Intergenerational Equity Principle, and the Principle of Environmental Justice and Equity.  Nova Scotians go to the polls in a general election on May 30; a guide to the policy positions of the Liberal, Conservative and NDP parties is here at the CBC website.  According to the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, the provincial NDP party has pledged to support an Environmental Bill of Rights .