Australia should revise its climate and coal mining policies, recommends a UN Human Rights Body

On Wednesday 28th June, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that Australia revises its climate policy and reconsider its support for the extraction and export of coal.

These recommendations followed the review at the end of May by the committee of the promotion and respect by Australia of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Covenant is one of the two main UN Human Rights treaties and has been ratified by the vast majority of countries including all major economies except for the United States.

During the review, the members of the UN Committee questioned the representatives of the Australian government on their government’s plans to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, noting that climate change impacts many human rights protected by the covenant, including the right to food and the right to health. The committee noted in particular that Australia is projected to be more severely impacted by climate related hazards such as heat waves and extreme weather events than many other countries.

FLICKR (TAKVER) Australians demonstrating to demand more adequate climate policies.

Dr. Olivier De Schutter, a member of the committee, noted in particular that the Australian government had repealed its 2013 its Emissions Trading Scheme and that absolute emissions of greenhouse gases are currently on the rise in the country despite the commitments made by the government under the Paris Climate Agreement. Additionally the members of the committed also insisted on the risks that the authorization of new coal mines posed for the climate. On the issue of coal mining, the committee raised concerns about the respect of the rights of aboriginal peoples on whose lands these projects are developed.

Committee member Waleed Sadi stressed that, in the light of the recent decision of the US president to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, climate policies in countries such as Australia have a broader impact beyond their national borders and are key to signal that governments remain committed to climate action.

But shortly after these discussions had taken place in Geneva, and while the Committee had yet to release its recommendations, the Australian government gave its green light to the plans of the Indian company Adani for the opening of the largest coal mine in the country in the Galilee Basin. Once in full operation, the Carmichael mine is projected to extract annually the equivalent of 128 million tons of carbon dioxide every year (this is, for instance, higher than the annual emission of a country like Belgium and its 11 millions of inhabitants).

In the recommendations made public this week, the Committee called on the government to “take immediate measures aimed at reversing the current trend of increasing absolute emissions of greenhouse gases, and pursue alternative and renewable energy production”. The Committee also encouraged Australia ”to review its position in support of coal mines and coal export”. It further expressed concerns about the failure to respect the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in particular in relation to the extractive industry and asked that the government “addresses the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples more effectively”.

This last point builds on a previous recommendations that the committee had already made to Australia during the previous review of the compliance of the country with its human rights obligations. In 2009 the committee had urged the government to take action to reduce emissions and to prevent adverse impacts of climate change on the right to food and the right to water for indigenous peoples.

The recommendations adopted by the committee this week in relation to Australia provide a valuable contribution to the increasing recognition of the relevance of human rights obligations in the context of climate change policies as they point out specifically the role of the coal industry in the climate crisis. The growth of the Australian coal extraction has become one of the key aspects of Australia’s climate and energy policy most vehemently denounced by climate campaigners and leaders. Just last week, a group of prominent leaders and oceanographers called in an open letter the prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to veto the Carmichael project at the light of serious concerns for the impacts of climate change on coral reefs.

It is not the first time that UN Human Rights bodies establish clear linkages between the extraction of fossil fuels and human rights impacts. In the past, these bodies have repeatedly insisted on the linkages between the extraction of coal, oil and gas and the protection of the rights of children, the right to health and access to clean water, the rights of women and the rights of indigenous peoples. In 2016, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had expressed concerns about the extraction of tar sands in Alberta and recommended that Canada “ensures that the use of non-conventional fossil energies is preceded by consultation with affected communities and impact assessment processes”.

These recommendations for governments to consider the climate and human rights implications of the extractions of fossil fuel echo ongoing national judicial challenges such as against the licensing of Arctic oil extraction in Norway or the lease of a coal mine by a publicly owned enterprise in Sweden.

By Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney

Originally posted June 29, 2017 on Huffington Post