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17 Jan 2024

Natalia Daza Niño, BHRRC

COP28 Breakdown: Striving for a just transition amid human rights hurdles

For those promoting a just energy transition, two general developments from COP28 stood out: at the conclusion of the conference, parties committed for the first time to transition away from and reduce their demand for fossil fuels. The final text also evidenced agreement on a common goal, as parties called to triple global renewable energy capacity. This is welcome news in the race against climate change – but the required scope and speed of the deployment of renewable energy assets comes with its own set of human rights challenges.

As revealed by our latest version of the Renewable Energy Benchmark, despite increased efforts by major wind and solar developers - 75% of which have implemented human rights policies - there is still significant progress to be made. Policies and practices on land rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights remain poor. Worryingly, the sector remains severely exposed to the risk of forced labour in its supply chains - and is still far from doing enough to address it.

The push to triple renewable energies will also drive demand for transition minerals which include - but are not limited to - lithium, copper and bauxite, among others. The extraction of these minerals, as evidenced by our Transition Minerals Tracker, is no stranger to abuses synonymous with the mining industry, including attacks on human rights defenders, which account for a third of all allegations. It is therefore imperative for companies to conduct thorough human rights due diligence to ensure a cleaner energy production which respects and safeguards human rights throughout the supply chain.

In addition, as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrez pointed out in his press conference, parties need to make an explicit commitment to a fossil fuel phase-out, rather than simply a promise to transition away from fossil fuels. The latter is problematic because it lacks clarity on when, how, and what this transitioning away looks like, creating a loophole that could allow continued fossil fuel production. Moreover, as finance pledges continue to fall short, it is still unclear how the transitioning away from fossil fuels, along with the tripling of renewable energy, will be financed.

While the final COP decision text contains references to a just transition, Indigenous Peoples and women’s rights, specific issues essential for the process of tripling renewables to uphold human rights, such as shared prosperity, human rights and social protection, and fair negotiations, were left unaddressed.

Work Programme on Just Transition Pathways: Some progress but gaps on human rights and corporate accountability remain

COP28 closed with a decision on the Just Transition Work Programme. To be effective, the Work Programme cannot afford to limit its work solely to dialogues, as currently indicated, but must be sufficiently empowered to deliver strong recommendations.

The decision preamble acknowledges human rights, the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, peoples with disabilities and local communities, and the need to promote gender equity on climate action. However, explicit wording calling for effective participation was eliminated during the last round of negotiations. Echoing calls from business coalitions, close attention must also be given to corporate accountability and responsibility in the context of a just transition.

The influence of the most polluting industries over COP negotiations outcomes must be curtailed.

This year’s COP again welcomed a record number of fossil fuel and gas lobbyists. It also saw an increase in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) lobbyists - successful in their efforts to secure a reference to CSS technologies as part of the climate solutions recognised in the COP’s final decision, despite profound concerns regarding the scientific viability and cost-efficiency of these technologies. This, in addition to the next COP being held in a petrostate for a third year in a row (Azerbaijan) and the controversies around this year’s COP presidency and his business affiliations, reinforces the need for a much stronger conflict-of-interest policy from the UNFCCC, one that is able to safeguard the right to science at these negotiations.

Azerbaijan has appointed Mukhtar Babayev, former executive at the country’s state-owned oil company (SOCAR), as COP29 President, raising new concerns for the next COP. This added to the long-tracked record of human rights abuses from oil and gas companies in Azerbaijan, as evidenced in reports published by the Oil Workers' Rights Protection Organization (2023), and Crude Accountability (2022), among others.

Unaddressed barriers to the right to participation at COP

COP28 was held for the second year in a row in a country with a troubling human rights record, an aspect which critically shaped the way in which civil society raised its demands during the conference. While UN rules themselves are a significant limitation to civic space at the climate conference, having a host country which further limits civil society space makes it even more difficult to guarantee effective participation. Without the UN safeguarding conditions necessary for effective participation to be carried out by civil society, and with COP29 being held for the third time in a row in a country with a shrinking space for civil society, human rights defenders and NGOs will continue to face obstacles to secure their right to participation.

By Natalia Daza Niño, Natural Resources & Just Energy Transition Researcher, BHRRC