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Corporate concern for human rights essential to tackle climate change

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We have the means to create a green and equitable economy, but first corporations must embrace sustainable growth strategies that include a concern for human rights.

Asuncion Lera St. Clair
12 March 2015

As the climate change debate evolves into a larger question of creating green, equitable, principled growth—what I call  “socio-ecological growth”—many argue that focusing on social justice aspects and human rights makes the problem too big and complex. But this appears to be just a smokescreen to hide inequalities and protect existing interests.

I don’t debate that the task is large. It calls for systemic change and for new alliances of actors that work at many levels and in diverse locations. It requires as well a major remobilization of resources for needed investments and social services. It needs to correct for past injustices and generate a real economy, with value for all as well as respecting the resilience of natural systems.

The key issue, however, is that a future where we have achieved socio-ecological growth with only civil society and government action — too often the only actors seen as relevant — is unrealistic. At the core of the solution lie new forms of conceiving and regulating the economy, of producing and consuming goods, of rethinking the role of the market and the meaning of investments. For this, the private sector needs to be part of the solution. This means that corporate sustainability, defined as business strategies that respect and protect human rights principles, and produce social, environmental and cultural value, alongside economic gains, needs to become the new business as usual.

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Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock.com (All rights reserved)

Traffic in a hazy Beijing. It is unlikely that emerging economies and less-developed countries they will change their energy use patterns unless equity is central in climate policy.


The 2013 Fifth Assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates quite clearly that climate change impacts are substantive and consequential, threatening socio-ecological systems across the planet. In the years to come, regardless of future mitigation efforts, the climate will continue changing due to current emissions. At the same time, immediate reductions of greenhouse gasses are needed to prevent more intense, possibly catastrophic and irreversible changes in future decades. The IPCC Working Group 2 defines “climate resilient pathways” as development trajectories that combine mitigation and adaptation to realise the goal of sustainable development and help avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system.”

Climate change is a development problem, not an environmental one. Once we frame it as such, solving the climate crisis requires actions that address social justice questions, along with environmental issues. But as I have argued elsewhere, climate change is a development problem, not an environmental one. Once we frame it as such, solving the climate crisis requires actions that address social justice questions, along with environmental issues. For example, adaptation and mitigation policies need to lead to better employment, and long-term social security and justice principles need to regulate possible conflicts and trade-offs.  In other words, climate resilient pathways should produce both social and environmental value. We do not want an environmentally safe future at the expense of more social inequality, or the violation of civil and social rights. Rather, we want a future where human rights principles are used as tools to balance claims on security and human development achievements.

In addition, a shift toward climate resilient pathways needs to be equitable for instrumental reasons, and it must be global. This is because such a shift requires the participation of emerging economies and less developed countries. Governments and civil society in these countries insist, correctly, that they are less responsible than the rich countries for historical emissions, and they are less capable to adapt to unavoidable impacts. It is unlikely that they will change their energy use patterns unless equity is central in climate policy. Poor countries, or those in transition, will not abandon the use of cheap and accessible energy unless they have the help and technological means to grow sustainably, nor would they make sacrifices unless these are equitably shared.

The question of justice, therefore, remains at the core of solving climate change. How do we implement human rights principles and the equitable sharing of opportunities and losses? There are already examples of green win strategies guided by justice principles, such as resilient value chain practices, or the work of business actors such as the UN Global Compact or the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

In order to redirect the technical expertise, resources and investments of private sector actors to deliver socio-ecological growth, we need transparent and stable regulatory regimes and government policy. At the same time, we also need an “entrepreneurial state”, a state acting in new partnerships with other societal actors that creates incentives for social and economic innovation. Corporate sustainability thus becomes not only the result of strong regulation, but also the result of public innovation and co-operation among different actors. This activity needs, however, to have normative guidance to prevent abuses and to guarantee equitable processes and outcomes. This is why human rights principles are so important — in the end they will enable the quick and fair transition to equitable and climate resilient pathways of development.

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