COP28, the United Nations annual climate conference, takes place in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December. It will bring together 198 states and parties to address the global threat posed by climate change. The human rights record of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the host nation, will also be under the spotlight. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard will attend between 1-6 December.
Countries agreed to limit global warming at previous COPs, so what happened?
At COP21 in Paris in 2015 countries agreed to try to limit global warming this century to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We are already at about 1.4°C, and the world’s climate is on course to be least 2.8°C warmer by 2100, according to the IPCC climate science advisory panel, with catastrophic implications for billions of people and ecosystems. Concentrations of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane,which are warming the atmosphere and derived mainly from the production and burning of fossil fuels, are already at record levels and increasing.
But the world’s climate has changed historically, so what’s the problem?
Global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate. The past eight years have been the hottest ever recorded. In July the world endured the hottest day on record, and 2023 will almost certainly be the hottest year. This heat is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, wiping out crops and livestock, damaging ecosystems, and wrecking lives and livelihoods. A pattern of intensifying heat, droughts and wildfires, followed by extreme rainfall events, is becoming more commonplace. Longer-term processes, such as glacial melting and retreat, polar ice sheet loss, and sea-level rise have intensified.
What has climate change got to do with human rights?
Everyone has the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. As the climate crisis intensifies, this right, and others, are under growing threat. Climate change worsens droughts, damages harvests and leads to food scarcity and rising food costs, and after decades of steady decline, world hunger has risen again. This scarcity increases resource competition and can cause displacement, migration, and conflict, leading to other human rights harms. It is often already vulnerable communities, which use fossil fuels the least, such as subsistence farmers, Indigenous peoples, and those living in low lying island states faced with rising sea levels and more powerful storms, who bear the brunt of climate change and whose rights to health, life, food, and education are most often compromised. Global warming effects many other rights in countries at all levels of income, for example by significantly worsening air pollution. It means disease-carrying mosquitos are spreading to new areas. Extreme heat causes deaths among workers outside, and increases mortality rates in care homes and health facilities. In high-income countries, the damage caused by fossil fuel extraction and climate change often falls disproportionately in so-called ‘sacrifice zones’ where often already marginalized communities are subjected to harmful pollution, and disinvestment means public infrastructure is ill-equipped to survive extreme weather events.
What can be done to fix this?
Much more. An agreement on a fast, fair, and funded phase out of fossil fuels at COP28 is critical to protect human rights. Governments and business leaders can and should do far more to halt the increasing development of fossil fuel resources, which is incompatible with states’ human rights obligations and the goal to limit global warming to below 1.5°C. Many countries are investing in expanding renewable energy but far more is required for a transition which provides access to sustainable energy for all. Public financing forrenewable energy, making polluters pay, and mandatory electrification are policy approaches that can have measurable impacts on emissions.
Several court cases related to climate change and infringement of rights are underway, some involving Amnesty International, and demonstrating that there are legal paths towards holding states and companies to account.
Campaigning and climate activism have notched important victories, showing that grassroots pressure on governments and business to stop investing in fossil fuelscan help us to turn the corner. Young people and minoritized communities suffering the most from the human rights violations associated with climate change are often at the forefront of these efforts.
What about human rights in the UAE? Isn’t it a major fossil fuel producer?
The UAE’s dismal human rights record threatens a successful summit. A pledge to allow “voices to be heard” at COP28 is inadequate and serves to highlight the UAE’s normally restrictive human rights environment and the severe limits it places on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The closure of civic space, and the possibility of digital espionage and surveillance are concerns. Amnesty International has prepared a full briefing on the UAE’s human rights situation. COP must be a forum where therights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest are upheld and civil society, Indigenous peoples, frontline communities and groups affected by climate change, can participate openly and without fear. Emiratis and people of all nationalities must be able to freely criticize states, rulers, corporations and policies, including those of the UAE, so they can help shape policy without intimidation.
The UAE is also one of the world’s top ten oil producing states and opposes the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry generates enormous wealth for relatively few corporate actors and states, which have a vested interest in blocking a just transition to renewable energy, and silencing opponents.
COP28, is chaired by Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the UAE state oil and gas company ADNOC, which is expanding its production of fossil fuels. Amnesty International has urged Sultan Al Jaber to resignfromADNOC, believing it is a glaring conflict of interest which threatens the success of COP28, and symptomatic of the increasing influence the fossil fuel lobby has been able to exert over states and COP.
How can countries with fewer resources be expected to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets?
Many countries lack resources sufficient tofix damage caused by global warming, or to adapt to its impacts and protect people’s rights. Higher income states have an obligation under human rights law and the 2015 Paris Agreement to provide them with support.
In 2009 higher-income states, which have been the largest historic emitters of greenhouse gases, promised US$100bn a year by 2020 to help “developing” countries with emissions reduction and climate adaptation. So far they have failed to honour this funding commitment, but meeting all existing pledges and scaling up financing for adaptation and social protection programmes are critical to protecting rights.
For years higher-income states refused to pay for the loss and damage caused by climate change in “developing” countries but last year’s COP agreed to create a Loss and Damage Fund. How this fund will be run and managed will be subject to negotiation at this year’s meeting.
Higher-income states, through their roles as creditors and regulators, and via their influence over the World Bank to provide debt relief or loans with less punishing conditions, can help accelerate a just transition to renewable energy globally.