IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 release: a clear message of urgency and hope, increasing pressure on Governments to take equitable climate action

At the end of its 58th session, taking place in Interlaken, Switzerland, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Cycle on Monday, March 20, 2023.

On the dedicated official website, the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and the longer report are now available, together with the figures representing data in the Synthesis Report (SYR) and its headline statements. The full volume is coming soon.

The SYR summarizes the findings of the reports produced during the Sixth Assessment Cycle: the contributions of the three IPCC Working Groups (respectively on the physical basis of climate change; on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; on climate change mitigation) and the three Special Reports (respectively on global warming of 1.5°C, on oceans and the cryosphere, and on land use). The reports are based on peer-reviewed literature published between the conclusion of the previous assessment cycle in 2014 and 2019; the process involves more than one thousand authors from all over the world. The intergovernmental panel, composed by representatives of the States that are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), approves line by line the wording of the SPM by voting in the plenary session, while it accepts the full reports. In any case, scientific data is not negotiable.

This SYR has a new structure if compared with previous ones, aimed at better-integrating knowledge from the different Working Groups and providing relevant information on near and long-term climate change and possible climate action. The sections of the SYR are dedicated to the “Current Status and Trends”, assessing both the changing climate and the implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures, to “Long-Term Climate and Development Futures”, describing a range of socio-economic futures up to 2100, and to “Near-Term Responses in a Changing Climate”, displaying opportunities for effective action up to 2040.

It is relevant that this report is destined to inform the first Global Stocktake of the implementation of the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC, which will be concluded during the 28th Conference of the Parties of the FCCC (COP 28), taking place in Dubai from November 30 until December 12, 2023. The Global Stocktake is a critical juncture as it will show whether countries and other stakeholders are making progress toward the achievement of the goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement (“holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”).

According to the SYR, they are not: the report states there is high confidence that “global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, with unequal historical and ongoing contributions” and “global GHG emissions in 2030 implied by nationally determined contributions (NDCs) announced by October 2021 make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C”. The report carves into stone that “human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above 1850–1900 in 2011–2020”, and that human-caused climate change has already led to impacts, losses, and damages to nature and people, while “every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards”.

This discouraging picture is followed by a message of urgency and hope: there is high confidence that “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades”. Nonetheless, some future changes are unavoidable, but adaptation measures are available and should be taken today before they become more constrained and less effective. According to the IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, “mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits” (see IPCC press release).

As the report clearly states, choices and actions of this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years. A meaningful concept in the SYR is that of climate-resilient development, a model that integrates adaptation and mitigation to advance sustainable development for all. Increased International cooperation would be crucial to the implementation of such an approach, and the report confirms that, more broadly, political commitment, multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies, and strategies are fundamental for effective climate action.

Quoting the IPCC press release on the SYR, the report “brings into sharp focus the losses and damages (…) hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard”. Scientific findings in the report are interpreted in the light of climate justice principles: starting from the fact that “vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected”, and highlighting that “prioritizing equity, climate justice, social justice, inclusion, and just transition processes can enable adaptation and ambitious mitigation actions”. In the words of the IPCC Chair mentioned above, Hoesung Lee, “we live in a diverse world in which everyone has different responsibilities and different opportunities to bring about change. Some can do a lot while others will need support to help them manage the change.”

As no new IPCC reports are scheduled to be released before 2030, this SYR seems of paramount importance for political leaders, decision-makers, the different stakeholder groups, and, not least, climate change litigation. The IPCC reports have become a source of evidence for judicial proceedings, and, vice versa, the contribution of Working Group III on mitigation released in 2022 mentioned the relevance of climate change litigation in climate governance (see a comment on this in a previous blog post). 

The effort of the SYR authors toward the accessibility of the information is noticeable. As usual, the report is written in the so-called calibrated language, the distinctive feature of the IPCC publications. Each finding is grounded in an evaluation of underlying evidence and agreement: the level of confidence is expressed by five qualifiers from very low to very high, while the likelihood of outcomes is expressed with eight qualifiers ranging from exceptionally unlikely to virtually certain. A novelty of the SYR consists of italicized annotations in the figures: simple explanations written in non-technical language, to help non-experts navigate complex content. IPCC authors also provided online tools for readers with different expertise to navigate through the panel’s findings, such as the WGI Interactive Atlas and the WGI SPM Figure Explorer.

Some of the straightforward figures of this SYR are destined to become iconic. Figure SPM.1 effectively represents how the extent to which current and future generations will experience a hotter and different world depends on choices taken now and in the near term. This figure already appeared in several posts on social networks in the days following the SYR release, while Twitter registered almost a 1,000% increase in user activity around key climate hashtags compared to the previous week. 

Written by Elena Nalato, Ph.D. Student, Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Climate Change, University School for Advanced Studies IUSS Pavia, Italy

Picture credits: Fog Opening the Dawn, Jeong Jinsil, Weather and Climate Photography & Video Contest 2021, Korea Meteorological Administration


Small Island States push for answers on Climate Change from the ICJ and ITLOS

On 12 December 2022, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) received a request for an advisory opinion on the interpretation of the obligation to preserve and protect the marine environment under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in relation to climate change impacts such as ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification. The request was made by the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), an international organisation established by way of an international agreement in late 2021, whose mandate expressly includes requesting advisory opinions from the ITLOS (Article 2(2)). The COSIS project is complementary to the initiative led by Vanuatu along with other small island and climate-vulnerable states to request an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

On 20 November 2022, the latter project culminated in a draft resolution text which was notified to all UN member states and is set to be tabled for discussion and voting at the UN General Assembly in early 2023. This draft, prepared by a coalition of 17 countries, asks the ICJ to answer two questions based on conventional and customary international law, viz.  

  • what are the obligations of States to ‘ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment for present and future generations’; and
  • what legal consequences these obligations envisage for those states that have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to injured, specially affected or climate-vulnerable countries and ‘peoples and individuals’ of present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change.

The ICJ’s advisory jurisdiction extends to ‘any legal question’ requested by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, and legal question ‘arising within the scope of [the] activities’ of other authorized bodies (Article 65, ICJ Statute; Article 96, UN Charter). However, the fact that the Court is requested to answer a legal question by way of a UN General Assembly resolution does not mean that it has a duty to exercise its advisory jurisdiction. For reasons of propriety, the ICJ may refuse to answer legal questions posed to it.

In its jurisprudence, the ICJ has explained that it will not answer a request if doing so ‘would have the effect of circumventing the principle that a State is not obliged to allow its disputes to be submitted to judicial settlement without its consent’ (Western Sahara, [33]). This is not a hurdle for the request at hand as the draft resolution does not single out individual countries who may be regarded as violating international legal rules and principles relating to the ‘protection of the climate system or other parts of the environment for present and future generations.’ The initiative seems to be motivated by a desire for greater clarity on climate change related obligations and the consequences of their breach. There is no doubt that small island states and other vulnerable countries are unsatisfied by the level of protection or the depth of obligations to take protective measures envisaged by the international climate change regime.

While the initiative may be perceived as an attempt to circumvent the problems associated with the international law-making process by asking for judicial law-making, it may be argued that the initiative hopes for the Court to articulate existing international legal norms which may be derived from different legal regimes including international human rights law and the law of the sea, and different kinds of norms (rules and principles). Which one of these two frames the Court adopts is significant as it has implied in a previous case that it may be compelled to refuse a request for advisory opinion on account of its influence on ongoing international negotiations (Thirlway, 2006, at [17]).

It remains to be seen if a majority of the UN General Assembly members are convinced of the merits of adopting this resolution, although some reporting suggests that at least 100 countries have indicated their support for the resolution. It is also worth noting that previous efforts of a similar kind by the Marshall Islands and Palau failed to reach the formal negotiation stage at the Assembly. The initiative led by COSIS, on the other hand, does not face such a hurdle. In contrast to the ICJ, access to the ITLOS to obtain an advisory opinion is broad. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction comprises all matters specifically provided for in any international agreement which confers jurisdiction on the tribunal (Article 21, ITLOS Statute); and the Tribunal ‘may give an advisory opinion on a legal question if an international agreement related to the purposes of the [UNCLOS] specifically provides for the submission to the Tribunal of a request for such an opinion’ (Article 138, ITLOS Rules). It is necessary that the requesting body has been authorized to submit a request by such an international agreement, and the request contains ‘a legal question’ having a sufficient connection with the purposes and principles of that international agreement (SFRC Advisory Opinion, [60], [68]).

The text of the Agreement establishing the COSIS clearly indicates that it is an international agreement related to the purposes of the UNCLOS, especially concerning the protection and preservation of the marine environment as well as the preservation of interests in the maritime rights and entitlements provided for under the UNCLOS. The request filed by COSIS asks the Tribunal to clarify the ‘specific obligations’ of parties to the UNCLOS to take measures relating to greenhouse gas emissions which cause deleterious effects on the marine environment; and measures responding to climate change impacts on the marine environment, including ocean warming, sea-level rise and ocean acidification. In the past, the ITLOS did not shy away from answering clarificatory legal questions surrounding states’ obligations to respond to the global problem of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, which was brought to it by an inter-governmental fisheries cooperation organization established by an agreement between seven West African coastal states who were particularly affected by IUU Fishing (SFRC Advisory Opinion). The agreement establishing the COSIS seems to be inspired by this example and may be rightly described as the first jurisdictional agreement concluded for the primary purpose of seeking advisory opinions from the ITLOS. Considering its approach in the SFRC Advisory Opinion, it is likely that the ITLOS will find that it does indeed have the jurisdiction to give an advisory opinion on COSIS’ request.

Written by Pranav Ganesan (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)


UNGA recognizes the right to a healthy environment

On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution (A/RES/76/300, not yet published) recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Resolution recognizes the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and its relationship with other human rights and existing norms of international law. It passed without opposition, with 161 States voting in favor and 8 abstentions.

Image courtesy of @UN_News_Centre

The draft of this Resolution was spearheaded by five States (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland), and it was ultimately co-sponsored by over 100 countries as well as enjoying support from numerous civil society organizations and indigenous peoples’ groups. The opposition was led by Russia, and also included Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and the Syrian Arab Republic.

This development follows a similar recognition by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2021 (A/HRC/RES/48/13). In its Resolution recognizing this right, the Human Rights Council called on the UNGA to take up the issue. The UNGA’s Resolution responds to this call by taking on a triple planetary crisis: climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. It recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, and calls for greater global efforts to protect that right. It calls for full implementation of multilateral environmental treaties, and urges international organizations, corporate actors and other stakeholders to adopt policies, enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and share good practices to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.

This Resolution is not legally binding. As noted by John Knox, the former UNSR for human rights and the environment, “by itself, it will change no policies, enact no new laws, save no forests, stop no pollution. But it can be a powerful catalyst.” This development follows a lengthy struggle to achieve international recognition of this right, which is missing from the main international human rights treaties. Treaty bodies have instead resorted to the “greening” of existing rights to recognize the nexus between environmental protection and the enjoyment of human rights. The recognition of this right by the UNGA not only serves to underscore this nexus, but reflects domestic legal developments in a large number of jurisdictions, especially the constitutional recognition of this right in many countries. It also reflects the recognition of this right in regional instruments such as the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the San Salvador Protocol, the Aarhus Convention, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

More information:

For a statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R. Boyd, click here.

For more on delegates’ comments, see here.

A livestream of the UNGA’s meeting is available here.


IPCC Sixth Assessment Report – Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

On 4 April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third part of its 2022 Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) titled “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change”, following the first two contributions on the physical science basis (August 2021) and on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (February 2022, see also our blog post here). 

The Working Group III contribution assesses various mitigation pathways based on current national reduction measures and developments. It closely examines the sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and explores the potential of different sectors as well as climate governance to advance climate protection. Its broad and detailed analysis of mitigation options for the first time also addresses the social aspects of mitigation.

On a positive note, the Report shows that climate protection has found its way onto the political agenda of many States, e.g. through mitigation policies and laws, reduction targets and market instruments. Low-emission technologies have become more cost-efficient and hence globally available due to innovation policy packages.

Notwithstanding this progress, the IPCC however makes clear that immediate and comprehensive structural changes are needed in order to halt global warming. Average annual GHG emissions have reached a new high in the last decade and existing mitigation policies will not suffice to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Rather, reaching the 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius target requires rapid, deep and sustainable emission reductions across all sectors.

While the Report stresses that the time to act is now, as this decade will be decisive, it simultaneously demonstrates that action is both feasible and affordable. There are mitigation options available in every sector across all regions that can halve emissions by 2030. Possible mitigation measures include transitioning to net-zero CO2 energy systems, increasing resource efficiency, infrastructure development, demand-side management, as well as carbon dioxide removal methods. Accelerated and equitable climate action can furthermore be conducive to sustainable development.

In its final section, the Report explains how institutions, governance and socio-cultural factors influence mitigation policies by providing frameworks through which diverse actors interact. Here, the Report also addresses the role of climate litigation. It notes a growing number of climate-related cases and, by reference to high agreement in academia, recognizes their potential to affect the outcome and ambition of climate governance. Cases appear either in the form of systemic climate litigation, through which claimants aim for more ambitious governmental action against climate change, or they challenge state authorization of high-emitting projects. Also, private corporations and financial institutions are being sued for their direct or indirect contribution to global GHG emissions. More and more cases are based on human rights claims with courts showing increasing receptivity towards such arguments. The IPCC takes this trend into account in the context of structural factors shaping climate governance. To what extent litigation actually results in new climate regulations and policies requires further investigation.

Written by Violetta Sefkow-Werner (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)


UN Human Rights Council appoints new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change

On 1 April 2022 the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council appointed Ian Fry as the world’s first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. The mandate for a new special rapporteur on climate change was established by the Council in its 48th session (on 8 October 2021) where it also adopted a landmark resolution recognising the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment (A/HRC/RES/48/13). Fry, who will be holding this position for three years, is an expert in international environmental law and policy with extensive experience in climate negotiations as a representative of Tuvalu.

This appointment marks the success of an over a decade-long campaign for the Council to establish a thematic mandate for a new special rapporteur on human rights and climate change. This campaign was widely supported by civil society organizations as well as several developing countries. The role that UN Special Rapporteurs (UNSR) can play in mainstreaming human rights in environmental policy and decision-making at sub-national, national and international levels cannot be underestimated. With respect to climate change specifically, the UNSR on human rights and the environment, the UNSR on extreme poverty and human rights, the UNSR on human rights of migrants, the UNSR on the rights of indigenous peoples, and the UNSR on the rights of internally displaced persons have identified the link between the adverse short-term and long-term effects of climate change on the enjoyment of different human rights, and indicated that this results in special obligations towards certain protected groups. In the climate litigation space, the UNSR on human rights and the environment has filed several amicus interventions, including in the Portuguese Youth case pending before European Court of Human Rights (along with the UNSR on toxics and human rights), the Torres Strait Islanders case pending before the UN Human Rights Committee, the Sacchi case before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as domestic climate cases in Ireland, Norway and Brazil.

It is also worth recalling that in October 2014, 27 UNSRs and independent experts intervened during the negotiations for the Paris Agreement by way of an open letter to the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Here, they urged that the new treaty must recognise that climate change adversely affects human rights, that the obligation to adopt climate change mitigation measures to keep the global average temperature from rising above a level that is safe (2° C, if not lower) has a basis in human rights law, and that states must respect human rights in the formulation and implementation of climate policy. Unfortunately, the only reference to human rights in the Paris Agreement appears in the preamble, which notes that Parties must respect their respective human rights obligations when taking action to address climate change (para. 11). The negotiations under the umbrella of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have not sufficiently addressed the human rights implications of climate change or framed climate mitigation as a human rights obligation. With this background, the work of the special rapporteur on climate change is likely to have even more salience.

Outside of the standard (albeit important) functions performed by holders of thematic mandates, the new rapporteur’s ability to hold states accountable for the protection of human rights is especially crucial in relation to climate action. In this regard, it is worth noting that the mandate of the special rapporteur on climate change includes identifying challenges and making recommendations with respect to “States’ efforts to promote and protect human rights while addressing the adverse effects of climate change…including in the context of the design and implementation of mitigation and adaptation policies, practices, investments and other projects” (A/HRC/RES/48/14, para. 2(b)). This can be done by highlighting good practices of states with reference not just to domestic mitigation and adaptation measures, but also states’ ‘nationally determined contributions’ under the Paris Agreement and contributions towards international support and capacity building. This is a challenging task that needs to be executed carefully in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which is central to international climate change law and equity in climate action. At the same time, the urgency of the existential threat that is climate change lends particular importance to the new office of the special rapporteur.

Written by Pranav Ganesan (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)


Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ ground-breaking resolution on the ‘Climate Emergency’

On 4 March 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights published a resolution titled ‘Climate Emergency: Scope of Inter-American human rights obligations.’ In the Inter-American Human Rights system, this is the first document dedicated exclusively to the issue of climate change. The resolution was adopted by the IACHR pursuant to its mandate to make recommendations to governments of member States of the American Convention on Human Rights for the adoption of progressive measures in favour of human rights, as well as their observance (Article 41(b)).

The resolution not only recognises the link between climate change and the enjoyment of individual and collective human rights, but also attempts to systematize and concretely describe the human rights obligations of States in the context of the climate crisis. The operative part of the resolution is organized into nine chapters, which contain both normative guidance and concrete policy recommendations.

Interestingly, the resolution offers novel recommendations by bridging international human rights law with international environmental law. For instance, it states that those member States which have made international commitments to develop and update Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (climate-related targets communicated under the Paris Agreement) ‘must incorporate a human rights approach into their construction and implementation’ (paragraph 2). More generally, it recommends that, for procedural and substantive compliance with the ‘right to a healthy environment,’ States must interpret in good faith the principles of environmental law (e.g. prevention, precaution, and so on) in order to seek harmonization and consistency with the principles of international human rights law (paragraph 10).

Most importantly, the resolution affirms that the obligation to take appropriate measures for mitigation of greenhouse gases, implementation of adaptation measures and remediation of climate-relate damages should not be neglected because of the ‘multi-causal nature of the climate crisis’ (paragraph 15). It does so by reading human rights law in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Moreover, the resolution reiterates findings in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights’ (IACtHR) advisory opinion no. 23 regarding extra-territorial obligations under international human rights law, and applies them in the context of States’ greenhouse gas emissions. The relevant paragraph is worth quoting in whole:

‘39. States are tasked with implementing human rights obligations that are intertwined with those of international environmental law in the contexts of polluting activities within their jurisdiction, or under their control, so that they do not cause serious harm to their environment or that of other countries or areas outside the limits of national jurisdiction. At the same time, the rule of customary international law of “doing no harm” would be breached as a result of greenhouse gas emissions and thus the increase in frequency and intensity of meteorological phenomena attributable to climate change, which, regardless of their origin, contribute cumulatively to the emergence of adverse effects in other States.

The resolution also dedicates separate chapters to individuals and groups in situations of vulnerability or who have been historically and systematically discriminated against, as well as indigenous peoples, tribal groups, Afro-descendants and those working in rural areas, requiring States to account for the disparate impact that climate change and climate response measures may have on the lives and interests of such individuals and groups.

Judged by the tenor of its language and its coverage of a multitude of issues under international human rights law that relate to climate change, the resolution is ground-breaking. Its normative relevance in the Inter-American Human Rights system is promising, considering the approach of the IACtHR in valuing soft-law instruments arising out of the system for interpretive guidance (see for e.g. OC-23/17, OC-22/16). It remains to be seen how member States receive the resolution and respond to it.

Written by Pranav Ganesan (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)


The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report – Working Group II Report Released

On 27 February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of its sixth assessment report entitled “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability”. The Working Group II report is the second installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed this year. Approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC, the Working Group II report focuses more strongly on solutions and adaptions to climate change than earlier reports. By introducing and using several new components, such as an atlas to present data and findings on observed climate change impacts and risks, some of Working Group II’s key findings were as follows:

  • Climate change is a threat to human welfare and the health of the planet. The observed impacts, projected risks, magnitude, and trends of vulnerability indicate that global action for climate-resilient development is more urgent than previously assessed in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report (AR5) of 2014. 
  • Causing dangerous and widespread damage to nature and people, climate change has already led to some irreversible impacts as human systems and ecosystems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.  
  • Across sectors and regions, it is observed that climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people. As a result, about 3.3 to 3.6 billion people, mainly living in developing countries, are highly vulnerable to climate change.  
  • The report expects that regions dependent on glaciers and snowmelt are expected to experience seasonal reductions in water supply of up to 50 percent. 
  • With rising temperature levels, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems are highly likely to reach adaptation limits. If temperatures rise more than 2 degrees, many measures will lose their effect, making adaptions to climate change almost impossible. 
  • Compared to higher warming levels, near-term actions limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius would substantially reduce losses and damages related to climate change to both humans and ecosystems, but cannot eliminate them all. 
  • Adaption progress is likely to be unevenly distributed, with observed adaption gaps. By prioritizing immediate and near-term climate risk reduction, the opportunity for needed transformational adaptation is reduced. 
  • Enabling conditions, including, for example, political commitment, institutional frameworks, and mobilization of adequate financial resources, are key to the implementation, acceleration, and sustainability of adaption in natural and human systems.  

Written by Nicole Lüthi (Research Assistant at the Chair of Professor Helen Keller, University of Zurich)


Russia vetoes UN Security Council Resolution linking climate change to peace and security

On 13 December, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that would have framed climate change as a a threat to international peace and security. The draft Resolution, which was spearheaded by Ireland and Niger and was co-sponsored by 113 UN member States, would have called the Security Council to incorporate “information on the security implications of climate change” into its work on peace and security.

The UN Security Council has been discussing the security risks linked to climate change since 2007, and past resolutions have mentioned the destabilizing effects of climate change in specific contexts, for example in Iraq. The draft resolution’s text would have called on the UN Secretary-General to make security risks linked to climate change a “central component” of efforts to prevent conflict. The Resolution was premised on the understanding that climate change can “lead…to social tensions…, exacerbating, prolonging, or contributing to the risk of future conflicts and instability and posing a key risk to global peace, security, and stability”. It recognized the need for “a comprehensive, whole of UN approach to address climate change and its effects”.

A zero draft of the resolution was circulated after a 23 September high-level open debate on climate and security, organised by Ireland. No vote was held on that draft text due to resistance from Russia, China and the United States. On 13 December, India also voted against the Resolution, while Russia used its veto power and China abstained from the vote. According to the representatives of these States, the issue of climate change and its security implications should more appropriately be discussed in the context of other efforts, for example the Framework Convention on Climate Change to avoid ‘politicizing‘ the question.


The UN Recognizes the Human Right to Healthy Environment

On Friday, 8 October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council issued its Resolution 48/13, which recognizes the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. On the same day, in its Resolution 48/14, the Human Rights Council also established the office of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change.

The recognition of the human right to a healthy environment in Resolution 48/13 has been hailed as a major success for efforts to ensure that human rights law can adequately respond to environmental harms, and especially to the harms associated with climate change. The succinct resolution ‘[r]ecognizes the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right that is important for the enjoyment of human rights’ (§ 1), notes its interrelationship with other human rights (§ 2), and encourages States to capacity-build, cooperate, share good practices, adopt policies, and continue to take into account their environmental human rights obligations and commitments (§ 3).

In addition, the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 48/14 has simultaneously created the office of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change for a period of three years. The Special Rapporteur, who has not yet been appointed, will study the adverse effect of climate change on human rights, identify challenges, synthesize knowledge, promote and exchange views and best practices, raise awareness, seek views and contributions from States and other relevant stakeholders, facilitate the exchange of technical assistance, capacity-building and cooperation, coordinate with other actors, conduct country visits, participate in relevant events, integrate a gender-responsive, age-sensitive, disability inclusive and social-inclusion perspective, participate in the creation of standards for corporate actors, coordinate closely with other Special Rapporteurs in related thematic areas, and report to the Human Rights Council annually. The Resolution also requests the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council to prepare a report, in close cooperation with the new Special Rapporteur, on the impact of new climate protection technologies on human rights.

On the EJIL:Talk! Blog, Annalisa Savaresi has summarized these developments, discussing the various advantages of the recognition of the human right to a healthy environment. This includes improved access to justice, a strengthened basis for activism and the foundation for legislative protections of environmental interests. Overall, the recognition of this right is also described as drawing increased attention to environmental harms and issues.


Draft Protocol on the Right to Healthy Environment at the Council of Europe

On 29 September 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) proposed a new additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which would recognize the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment within the Council of Europe system. The proposal, which is based on a report by PACE member Simon Moutquin (Belgium SOC),  can be found here, and it also proposes the adoption of a parallel additional protocol to the European Social Charter.

The Assembly’s proposal will now be considered by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, which will decide whether to draft a corresponding protocol. Several previous attempts to recognize the right to a healthy environment within the Council of Europe have failed, and a similar recommendation by PACE from 2009 did not lead to the adoption of a corresponding optional protocol by the Committee of Ministers. PACE announced that this new instrument would would give the European Court of Human Rights “a non-disputable base for rulings concerning human rights violations arising from environment-related adverse impacts on human health, dignity and life”.

Further information:

  • For more on this, see the press release from the Council of Europe.
  • To read the draft Protocol, click here.
  • In September 2022, the CoE’s Steering Committee on Human Rights (CDDH) recommended the domestic recognition of the right to a healthy environment. On this, see here.