Elisa Morgera, Professor at Strathclyde University, interviews on the relevance of biodiversity law – and why we need to consider human rights, climate change and biodiversity as interlinked

Climate change affects human rights? Absolutely. The more you look, the more you see how human rights and the environment are inseparable. Indeed there is a whole discipline of international law dedicated to the interplay between the two.

An expert in this field is Elisa Morgera, Professor of Global Environmental Law at the Law School, University of Strathclyde, and a member of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s National Task Force on Human Rights Leadership. She has a particular focus on matters such as equitable and sustainable natural resource development, biodiversity, oceans governance, and corporate accountability.

It is not difficult to grasp how basic rights to food and shelter can be imperilled by the impact of climate change on agriculture, for example. But biodiversity itself is essential to our survival, Morgera explains. “From protected areas and healthy diverse forests, to access to healthy food, and also healthy microbes in the environment in which we live, all these things affect our own wellbeing: our life expectancy, our health, our ability to recuperate from surgical operations, and of course our access to food and water. All our basic human rights are really dependent on vibrant other life on earth, which in turn contributes to the non-living elements of our environment which are also essential for our wellbeing and ultimately our survival.”

Source of tension

Civil and political rights, she observes, have been prominent in previous climate negotiations, with different groups and constituencies including indigenous peoples seeking a voice in the development of the international climate change framework. “More attention is being placed on socio-economic rights. It’s very clear how livelihoods are affected as a result of the impacts of climate change, as is our right to health: the World Health Organization has done really good work in mapping in how many ways climate change affects the spread or severity of transmissible diseases. The idea of climate justice, which is a good label to look at how climate change can be everybody’s concern, not just climate experts, really captures the variety of human rights issues that come to bear.”

With different countries being affected in different ways – and contributing to the problem to different degrees – negotiations are bound to be tricky, even if the conflicts may not emerge on the main stage. “That underlying tension is always there, although it’s really more in the detail that you see it – are we paying more attention to one sector, agriculture or forests, as opposed to others – and each country will find ways, including very technical ways, to show they are contributing in a positive way to climate change.”

But Morgera is clear that the countries with greater resources have to play the biggest part. “We do need co-operation across the globe to tackle climate change effectively. And with that we need international solidarity to support those countries that contribute the least to climate change, have the least resources to respond to it, but are the most affected by its negative impacts.”

Holistic approach

Are there existing principles of international law that can help lay the foundations for progress? 

“Yes. One key argument I’m keen to explore is the importance of looking at the ecosystem approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation, which comes from international biodiversity law. It’s really important to see international climate law not in isolation from the broader body of international environmental law. In addition, the ecosystem approach can support a human rights based approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

“Again, it’s looking at, say, agriculture, forestry, not in isolation from each other, not purely from a climate accounting perspective, but really looking at co-benefits – benefits in terms also of nature protection, contribution to human health, consideration of the needs of different rights holders such as children or people with disabilities; and identifying solutions that also contribute to other environmental and human rights goals.

 “Although we have existing concepts, underpinned by international obligations and guidance for states, we still need to work out how exactly they apply in the very detailed context of climate change. That’s the work that has to be done, on the more specific rules and approaches to properly support this holistic approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation.”

Do experts like her have a role to play? Some work closely with the UN Climate Change Secretariat on papers to support the negotiations, “but there is also quite a lot of work that happens around the convention, a lot of side events, and non-formal discussion spaces where academics, UN officers or other experts come together and bring to attention new issues or new insights that usually are not immediately taken up in current COP negotiations but have the ground prepared for them to be discussed more formally at later COPs”. 

Technology trap

What in Morgera’s view should the richer countries be willing to accept and to commit to?

“I think it’s really important that there’s a clear and more ambitious commitment on choosing nature-based solutions as opposed to maybe more risky, technology-driven solutions. That means committing money, capacity building and other support for other countries to develop nature-based and human rights-based solutions. Richer countries both have to lead by example and do their own work, but also support others, particularly with international funding, to do the same. So they have a double responsibility, leading by example and leading by support.”

The technology part of the answer comes as a surprise, but some high tech solutions, Morgera explains, also carry high risks of potentially worsening climate change and of significant if not irreparable damage for biodiversity, with negative impact on particular groups within society.

“While the urgency of climate change of course pushes the advance of technology, we have to be very careful that we might try to fix a problem by creating an even bigger problem. Trying to focus on sustainable solutions that are based on nature’s own capacity to mitigate and address climate change is a surer path for real systemic change, as opposed to hoping for a technical fix that might make climate change disappear.” 

Is she referring to renewable energy? “I was referring to geo-engineering. But it’s important to reflect also on renewables: they may appear a low risk technological development, but we have plenty of evidence showing that some renewable developments have led to human rights violations as well as negative impacts on biodiversity. So we need to be very cautious about how these projects are developed and implemented, who is involved, and whether all other risks beyond trying to address climate change are taken into account. Work on renewables and work on forests has shown that tunnel vision on climate change may end up creating quite a lot of damage.”

Limits on freedom

I wonder whether, as tougher action becomes necessary, we might all have to accept some restrictions on our individual freedoms, whether on travel, property rights, or otherwise. Morgera agrees.

“There will be some difficult balancing acts to be considered, and again human rights provide a way to make sure that the balancing is appropriate, transparent, and protects the vulnerable while we need to rethink our lifestyles. There are some tough choices ahead, but they can only be tough for those that can afford them and who will not be as negatively impacted as others.”

What particular changes might we have to accept? “From everyday decisions about how we travel to work and travel across the country to how we use energy. But transformative change needs to be systemic: energy efficiency across the built environment, protecting biodiverse areas across the country. So it’s a variety of things, but it really cuts across almost all the dimensions of our lives.”

Measures of success

What will Morgera be looking for in order to assess how successful COP26 has been?

“That’s a tricky question: high expectations are important to put pressure on climate negotiators, but the COP is one of a series of annual events, so it’s important to keep a realistic approach and see this as part of a process. What would be really good is to have a clear sense of direction moving forward, of higher ambition in terms of climate mitigation. A clear connection between action on the ocean and climate change would also be very important: at the moment there is more of a dialogue than a negotiation on this topic. In addition, very clear and ambitious commitments on climate finance and on adaptation would be good outcomes.

“Of course climate change is so urgent that we do want as much progress as soon as possible, but some of the detailed rules that need to be discussed might take a bit more time.”

She concludes by highlighting the importance of being able to showcase examples of real progress. “For Scotland, for instance, this COP is an opportunity to showcase ambition in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: where we have already made concrete progress, where we have perhaps been more ambitious than other countries, as may be the case with human rights leadership and recognition of the interaction between human rights and climate change, or the protection of children’s human rights in Scotland. Concrete examples are a way to push for higher ambitions across the board.”

And in seeking action at all levels, “It’s also really important to create global networks of likeminded experts, activists and governments that can create a critical mass for seeing more radical change.”  

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