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UN expert attacks ‘exploitative’ world economy in fight to save planet
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UN expert attacks ‘exploitative’ world economy in fight to save planet

The race to save the planet is being impeded by a global economy that is contingent on the exploitation of people and nature, according to the UN’s outgoing leading environment and human rights expert.

David Boyd, who served as UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment from 2018 to April 2024, told the Guardian that states failing to take meaningful climate action and regulating polluting industries could soon face a slew of lawsuits.

Boyd said: “I started out six years ago talking about the right to a healthy environment having the capacity to bring about systemic and transformative changes. But this powerful human right is up against an even more powerful force in the global economy, a system that is absolutely based on the exploitation of people and nature. And unless we change that fundamental system, then we’re just re-shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was finally recognised as a fundamental human right by the United Nations in 2021-22. Some countries, notably the US, the world’s worst historic polluter, argue that UN resolutions are legally influential but not binding. The right to a healthy environment is also enshrined into law by 161 countries with the UK, US and Russia among notable exceptions.

Boyd, a Canadian environmental law professor, said: “Human rights come with legally enforceable obligations on the side of states, so I believe that this absolutely should be a game-changer – and that’s why states have resisted it for so long.

“By bringing human rights into the equation, we now have institutions, processes and courts that can say to governments this isn’t an option for you to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and phase out fossil fuels. These are obligations which include regulating businesses, to make sure that businesses respect the climate, the environment and human rights.

Over the course of his six-year mandate, Boyd met thousands of people directly affected by rising sea levels, extreme heat, plastic waste, toxic air, and dwindling food and water supplies, while undertaking fact-finding missions to Fiji, Norway, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Portugal, Slovenia, Chile, Botswana and Maldives.

“I’ve met so many people along the way in really difficult situations that I wake up in the night and see their faces,” he said.

Boyd’s final mission was to the Maldives in April, the lowest lying country on the planet, where he witnessed numerous atolls submerged under water. He said: “These islands are just like jewels scattered across the Indian Ocean, and yet for anyone who understands the science of climate change, it’s just a heartbreaking place to visit because of sea level rise, storm surges, coastal erosion, acidification, rising ocean temperatures, and heatwaves.

“The future is really daunting for people in the Maldives … the climate emergency is an existential threat that overshadows all the other issues.”

Scientists have warned that about 80% of the archipelago could be uninhabitable by 2050, and totally submerged underwater by the end of the century. But the Maldives, like many other countries, also has a major plastics problem, as the fossil fuel and chemical industries continue to flood the global market with single-use packaging. About 300 tons of trash are dumped each day on Thilafushi, an island created as landfill. Still, the Maldives, like many other climate vulnerable states, depend on fossil fuels – mostly diesel powered power plants – for energy.

Boyd said: “Powerful interconnected business and political elites – the diesel mafia – are still becoming wealthy from the existing system. Dislodging this requires a huge grassroots movement using tools like human rights and public protest and every other tool in the arsenal of change-makers.”

On his first trip as special rapporteur to Fiji, Boyd met with community members from Vunidogoloa, a coastal village left uninhabitable by rising sea water, who were forced to relocate to higher ground. Last year in Botswana, he met with Indigenous people from the Kalahari desert no longer able to handle the worsening heat and water scarcity.

He said: “I think there’s millions of invisible climate migrants today, and unless we get a handle on this problem and do so quickly, that’s going to look like a trickle before the flood.”

Over the past 30 years, the world has pinned its hopes on international treaties – particularly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris accords – to curtail global heating. Yet they do not include mechanisms for holding states accountable to their commitments, and despite some progress, greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to rise and climate breakdown is accelerating.

Last year, fossil fuel subsidies hit $7tn – a rise of $2m since the Cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, when governments agreed to phase out “inefficient” fossil-fuel subsidies to help fight global heating.

Boyd said: “The failure to take a human rights based approach to the climate crisis – and the biodiversity crisis and the air pollution crisis – has absolutely been the achilles heel of those efforts for decades.

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“I expect in the next three or four years, we will see court cases being brought challenging fossil fuel subsidies in some petro-states … These countries have said time and time again at the G7, at the G20, that they’re phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies. It’s time to hold them to their commitment. And I believe that human rights law is the vehicle that can do that.

“In a world beset by a climate emergency, fossil-fuel subsidies violate states’ fundamental, legally binding human rights obligations.”

It’s not just taxpayer subsidies propping up polluting industries and delaying climate action. The same multinationals are involved in negotiating – or at least influencing – climate policy, with a record number of fossil-fuel lobbyists given access to the UN Cop28 climate talks last year.

Boyd said: “There’s no place in the climate negotiations for fossil-fuel companies. There is no place in the plastic negotiations for plastic manufacturers. It just absolutely boggles my mind that anybody thinks they have a legitimate seat at the table.

“It has driven me crazy in the past six years that governments are just oblivious to history. We know that the tobacco industry lied through their teeth for decades. The lead industry did the same. The asbestos industry did the same. The plastics industry has done the same. The pesticide industry has done the same.”

In his final interview before handing over the special rapporteur mandate, Boyd said he struggles to makes sense of the world’s collective indifference to the suffering being caused by preventable environmental harms.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-DebrahView image in fullscreen

Boyd said he vividly recalls meeting Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella died after an asthma attack in London in 2013 – and later became the first person in the world to have air pollution cited as a cause of death. An estimated 7 million people worldwide die prematurely from air pollution each year.

“I’ll never forget Rosamund, just the sheer suffering she endured with the loss of her beautiful daughter … over 40 million people have died of air pollution since I became special rapporteur in 2018, yet I just can’t get people to care.

“I can’t get people to bat an eyelash. It’s like there’s something wrong with our brains that we can’t understand just how grave this situation is.”

“I think the right to a healthy environment is actually the foundation that we require to enjoy all other human rights. If we don’t have a living, healthy planet Earth, then all the other rights are just words on paper.”

Source: theguardian.com