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Greenpeace Southeast Asia and others v. the Carbon Majors

Summary:
This case was brought before the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) by 12 organisations and 20 individuals, as well as over a thousand Filipino citizens who expressed their support for the case through a petition, against the so-called ‘carbon majors’, i.e. high-emitting multinational and state-owned producers of natural gas, crude oil, coal and cement, including BP, Shell and Chevron. The applicants based their case on research indicating that these ‘carbon majors’ are responsible for a large percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. Citing the Philippines’ high degree of vulnerability to the effects of climate change, the applicants alleged violations of the rights to life, health, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and self-determination. They also specifically invoked the rights of vulnerable groups, peoples and communities, including women, children, people living with disabilities, those living in extreme poverty, indigenous peoples, and displaced persons. They invoked also the right to development, labor rights, and the right to ‘a balanced and healthful ecology’. This petition was brought after a number particularly destructive typhoons that affected the Philippines, including Typhoon Haiyan.

As a result of the petition, the CHR began a dialogical and consultative process, called the National Inquiry on Climate Change (NICC). This process aims to determine the impact of climate change on the human rights of the Filipino people, as well as determining whether the Carbon Majors are responsible for climate change.

On 6 May 2022, the Human Rights Commission released the findings of its inquiry.

Responsible instance:
The case was brought before the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, which is an independent National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, established on 5 May 1987 by Executive Order No. 163.

Date filed:
22 September 2015

Procedural steps in the case:
On 10 December 2015, the Commission announced during the Paris Climate Change Conference that it would take cognizance of the case.

On 21 July 2016, the Commission enjoined the respondent Carbon Majors to file their comments or answers to the petition within forty-five days. Out of the 47 respondents summoned, 15 submitted a response. Thirteen amicus curiae briefs were received. The applicants filed a reply, to which seven of the carbon majors filed a rejoinder.

Beginning July and November 2017, the Commission conducted community visits and dialogues to select climate impacted areas.

On 11 December 2017, the parties held a first preliminary conference. The Commission used this opportunity to deny the respondents’ jurisdictional objections to the case. It asserted its authority to investigate the case and hold public hearings in 2018 in Manila, New York, and London.

In 2018, the Commission held six public hearings in the case.

Outcome of the NICC:
On 6 May 2022, the Human Rights Commission released the findings of its inquiry. In his introductory note, Commissioner Roberto Eugenio T. Cadiz outlined the lengths taken by the Commission to engage with the “carbon majors” over this case, and noted that corporate actors, and not just States, have an obligation to respect and uphold human rights under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). He also noted the unprecedented nature of the claim, and the Commission’s own lack of resources in dealing with it. And he rejected the argument by the “carbon majors” that the Commission did not have territorial or subject matter jurisdiction to deal with the case, noting the interrelated nature of all human rights and the impact on the people of the Philippines.

In its report, the Commission began by reviewing the best available scientific knowledge on climate change. It set out, “as established by peer-reviewed science, that climate change is real and happening on a global scale”, and that it is anthropogenic, i.e. caused by human activity. It then set out that climate change is a human rights issue, noting its adverse impacts on human rights both internationally and in the Philippines. It focused particularly on impacts concerning the right to life, the right to health, the right to food security, the right to water and sanitation, the right to livelihood, the right to adequate housing, the right to the preservation of culture, the right to self-determination and to development, and the right to equality and non-discrimination, focusing on the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, older persons, people living in poverty, LGBTQIA+ rights. It also noted the impacts on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and on the rights of future generations and intergenerational equity.

After considering the duties of States to protect human rights, as the primary duty-bearers of human rights law, the Commission found that these rights also include extraterritorial obligations, and that while a balance between sovereignty and human rights must be sought, “States’ duty to protect is not confined to territorial jurisdiction”. It relied on international environmental law to identify the concrete procedural and substantive obligations on States in the context of climate change, and their obligation to protect vulnerable sectors against discrimination.

The Commission considered that the refusal of governments to engage in meaningful mitigation action regarding climate change constitutes a human rights violation. It held that “[t]he pursuit of the State obligation to mitigate climate change cannot just be framed as aspirational, where the standard of fulfillment is vague and the timeline is uncertain. Concrete metrics must be set against which States may be held accountable. Failing this, States enable the human rights of their citizens to be harmed, which equates to a violation of their duty to protect human rights” (p. 87). The absence of meaningful action to address global warming, it held, suffices in this regard; these obligations of States include an obligation to regulate corporate activities, and to establish a policy environment that discourages reliance on fossil fuels.

The Commission then turned to business responsibilities, noting that “a State’s failure to perform [its duty to enact and enforce appropriate laws to ensure that corporate actors respect human rights] does not render business enterprises free from the responsibility of respecting human rights.” Referring to the UNGP framework and the UN Global Compact as well as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations, it applied these standards to the context of climate change. It found that:

  • The anthropogenic contributions of the “carbon majors” to climate change is quantifiable and substantial;
  • The “carbon majors” had early awareness, notice or knowledge of their products’ adverse impacts on the environment and climate systems;
  • The “carbon majors” engaged in willful obfuscation or obstruction to prevent meaningful climate action;
  • The “carbon majors” have the corporate responsibility to undertake human rights due diligence and provide remediation, including through every entity in their value chain;
  • And the UNGPs may be relied on under the law of the Philippines.

It went on to issue a number of recommendations. Concerning States, it called for climate justice, including a pooling of resources and sharing of skills, and urged governments to:

  • Undertake to discourage dependence on fossil fuels, including by phasing out all coal power fossil fuel subsidies and other incentives;
  • To collaborate on innovative climate action and guarantee the enjoyment by all of the benefits of science and technology;
  • To cooperate towards the creation of a legally binding instrument to strengthen the implementation of the UNGPs, and provide redress to victims of corporate human rights impacts;
  • To concretize the responsibilities of corporate actors in the climate context;
  • To discourage anthropogenic contributions to climate change and compensate victims;
  • To ensure access to adaptation measures by all, as well as equality and non-discrimination in climate adaptation and mitigation measures;
  • And to ensure a just transition towards an environmentally sustainable economy;
  • As well as to fulfil climate finance commitments and devise new mechanisms for loss and damage from climate change-related events;
  • To adequately support and protect environmental defenders and climate activists;
  • To promote climate change awareness and education;
  • To include military operations and supply chains in carbon accounting;
  • And to strengthen shared efforts to conserve and restore forests and other terrestrial ecosystems.

The Commission also formulated concrete recommendations for the “carbon majors” themselves, urging them to:

  • Publicly disclose their due diligence and climate and human rights impact assessment results, and the measures taken in response thereto;
  • Desist from all activities that undermine the findings of climate science, including “climate denial propaganda” and lobbying activities;
  • Cease further exploration of new oil fields, keep fossil fuel reserves in the ground, and lead the just transition to clean energy;
  • Contribute to a green climate fund for the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures;
  • And continually engage with experts, CSOs, and other stakeholders to assess and improve the corporate climate response through “a new chapter of cooperation towards a united front for climate action”.

Speaking directly to financial institutions and investors, the Commission noted their ability to “steer companies and industries towards a sustainable path by aligning lending and investment portfolios with targets set by science”. It considered that their role in financing sectors and projects that generate greenhouse gas emissions make them “similarly accountable for global warming”. Accordingly, they were urged to:

  • Refrain from financing fossil fuel related projects and instead direct capital towards green projects; and
  • Exert social, political and economic pressure on the fossil fuel industry to transition to clean energy by divesting financial instruments related to fossil fuels.

The Commission concluded by noting the role of UN institutions, NHRIs, and courts — reviewing examples of climate litigation such as the Urgenda or Leghari cases, noting that “even when courts do not rule in favor of the claimants, they still contribute to meaningful climate response through their elucidation of the law and the rights and obligations of the parties”. Similarly, NGOs, CSOs, the legal profession and individuals are recommended to champion human rights and continue engaging in strategic litigation to strengthen business and human rights norms, change policy, increase governments’ ambitions, and create precedents.

The Commission furthermore addressed the Philippines’ own lackluster record of climate action, making concrete recommendations to the government to, among other things, formulate a national action plan on business and human rights, declare a climate and environmental alert, and revisit its NDC under the Paris Agreement as well as implement coal moratoriums, transition to low-carbon transportation systems, implementing REDD+ measures and data building and reporting mechanisms, and create legislative change. It also recommended to the domestic judiciary to create rules of evidence for attributing climate change impacts and assessing damages, and take note of the anthropogenic nature of climate change.

Suggested citation:
Philippines Human Rights Commission, In Re: National Inquiry on the Impact of Climate Change on the Human Rights of the Filipino People and the Responsibility therefor, if any, of the ‘Carbon Majors’, case nr. CHR-NI-2016-0001, Report of 6 May 2022.

Further information:
The full text of the petition is available here.

The report of 6 May 2022 is available here.

A blogpost on the importance of the report by Annalisa Savaresi and Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh is available on the GNHRE blog.

For additional resources provided by the Commission, such as transcripts of hearings and evidence submitted, click here.