Climate change: Ireland failing on ‘human rights obligations’, says UN

Government must take more effective measures, according to UN human rights expert

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has called the Government’s failure to take more effective measures to address climate change “a breach of Ireland’s human rights obligations”.

The detailed statement issued by Special Rapporteur Prof David Boyd represents a landmark intervention by a UN human rights expert in an Irish environmental law case.

Reinforcing arguments made by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) in their case against the Government, which is due to go to hearing early next year, it highlights threats climate change poses to the right to life and other human rights in the Irish context.

It states the Government "must take additional actions on an urgent basis on climate change", and concludes "climate change clearly and adversely impacts the right to life, a right which the Government of Ireland is legally obligated to respect, protect and fulfil".



Special Rapporteur Boyd says: “There is no doubt that climate change is already violating the right to life and other human rights today. In the future, these violations will expand in terms of geographic scope, severity, and the number of people affected unless effective measures are implemented in the short term to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect natural carbon sinks.”

The Government of Ireland “has clear, positive, and enforceable obligations to protect against the infringement of human rights by climate change,” he adds.

“It must reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, applying the maximum available resources. This conclusion follows from the nature of Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law and international environmental law.”

From a human rights perspective, it is necessary for the Government of Ireland not only to take additional actions on an urgent basis to implement its current nationally determined contribution, it submits, “but also to seek to strengthen that contribution as part of the collective effort to meet and/or exceed the targets set out in the [2015] Paris Agreement” on climate change.

The Irish legal case follows the recent successful climate case brought by Urgenda campaign group against the Government of the Netherlands.


In light of that decision, the UN Rapporteur notes: “The Dutch Court also made the observation, highly relevant to Ireland’s situation, that ‘it deserves further attention that the Netherlands, as a highly developed country, has profited from fossil fuels for a long time and still ranks among the countries with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It is partly for this reason that the State should assume its responsibility’.”

The statement cites two Irish national reports detailing the Government's failure to meet emissions reduction targets, including recent projections by Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency and the recent annual report of the Climate Change Advisory Council.

Climate Case Ireland spokeswoman Sadhbh O’Neill said the UN Special Rapporteur’s intervention in the case is “hugely significant”.

"Ireland is under international scrutiny because we are not doing our fair share to reduce emissions. Climate change poses real risks to a range of human rights, including violating the right to life, and the Irish Government has a positive duty to protect these rights," she added.

Their case asks the High Court "to quash and remit the inadequate 2017 National Mitigation Plan in order that it can be remade to protect these fundamental human rights".

Four Courts

The Special Rapporteur’s 13-page statement has been submitted by FIE to the High Court as part of its ongoing legal proceedings against the Government. The case is scheduled to be heard at the Four Courts over four days from January 22nd, 2019.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. Its mandate holders act independently to "examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report" on human rights problems in monitoring sovereign nations and democratically elected governments and policies. This is why the Irish intervention is believed to be unprecedented, Ms O'Neill told The Irish Times.

They report annually to both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. The council has repeatedly adopted resolutions reiterating its concerns about the effects of climate change on human rights, particularly those of the most vulnerable.

It has reiterated “climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has adverse implications for the full enjoyment of human rights”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times