World’s eco focus shifts

Recent UN talks highlight need to include human impacts of green projects

—Allison Silverman, Center for International and Environmental Law

Two of the UN climate talks’ biggest greenhouse gas solutions also happen to be two of the negotiators’ most difficult human rights problems.

At the sessions in Lima earlier this month, nations were asked to weigh new safeguards for the clean energy projects—particularly hydropower—encouraged under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. Negotiators considered impacts to indigenous rights under the UN’s primary effort to halt deforestation, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation effort, or “REDD.”

Both programs were designed as win-win solutions that would allow developed countries to gain credit for investing in projects to curb greenhouse gases in the developing world. But both have been hit by allegations that outside, moneyed interests tend to gain under the scenarios, while people most affected by the projects are locals, usually indigenous, who are forced off their land or denied the right to participate in decision-making.

John Knox, a professor of law at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who serves as a UN independent expert on human rights and the environment, says this is one reason he and 27 other UN advisers on social justice have called for stronger human rights language in the climate treaty. “A human rights framework would help to make clear that governments don’t leave behind their human rights obligations when they walk through the doors of the climate negotiations,” he said.

A sharper human rights focus would help guide decisions, for example, on carbon-free hydro-electric dam projects that displace people from their homes.

It could also influence the climate debate over forest protection, including in Peru, where illegal logging has driven indigenous people from their land. Projects to cut down old forests and replace them with monoculture oil palm plantations have sought the UN’s blessing and credit as reforestation efforts.

“If you put a fence up and evict people from the land they’re using in the name of protecting the forest, that is a real problem,” said Allison Silverman, attorney with the Center for International and Environmental Law, which is working to strengthen human rights safeguards in the REDD forest protection effort.

“Making sure that people are part of the solutions … will protect the sustainability of these projects for the long haul.”

James Connaughton, who participated in climate talks as a leading White House environmental adviser during President George W. Bush’s administration, noted that developing countries’ concerns about the cost of energy for citizens also is a social justice concern.

“More access to energy makes people better off, and allows them to be able to afford to mitigate greenhouse gases,” he said. “To increase the cost of an essential commodity—and to reduce people’s ability to improve their lives—can’t be a result that people want. This is the essential puzzle of addressing greenhouse gases.”

But climate justice advocates argue that advances in clean energy technology, such as reducing the cost of solar and wind energy, have boosted prospects for solving that riddle. “What has been the fact up to now is that for a country to grow economically, it has had to consume more fossil fuel,” said Tara Shine, head of research for the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice. “It is possible to grow without fossil fuel. This is a new thing we know. The challenge is to make sure those technologies are available so the clean path to growth is affordable.”

That underscores the importance of the Green Climate Fund, which received $9.6 billion in pledges in the weeks leading up to the treaty talks. The idea of a $100 billion repository, funded jointly by government and private financing to aid developing countries, was first raised by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the otherwise disastrous climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009.

Since then, negotiators have agreed that the fund should be split 50-50 to finance clean energy development and adaptation measures in poor countries.

Heather Coleman heads climate policy for Oxfam America. The group has lobbied hard to ensure half the fund would be devoted to helping poor countries cope with sea-level rise and drought. Coleman believes that environmentalists once were resistant to an adaptation focus in treaty talks, fearing that it seemed like admitting defeat on cutting carbon emissions. “That dynamic started to shift slowly as the number of humanitarian disasters and their extremity increased,” Coleman said.

The U.S. pledge of $3 billion, Japan’s promise of $1.5 billion, and the United Kingdom’s $1.1 billion helped bring the UN close to its $10 billion goal for public monies to capitalize the fund and lure a much larger pool of private investment. But some developed countries have yet to step forward, and Australia has been critical of the fund.

The split over the Green Climate Fund shows that old rifts continue to dog the UN climate negotiations process, but most human rights advocates see the climate talks as—for now—the best global platform for addressing these issues.

“It ain’t an easy process, but the value is all countries have a voice,” Coleman said.

This story was originally published in The Daily Climate, an independent news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find it online at