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David R. Boyd: The plight and outlet of climate refugee protection

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

David R. Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur

David R. Boyd is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, an associate professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, one of Canada's leading experts on environmental law and policy, and an internationally renowned authority on the relationship between human rights and environmental degradation. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia.

His research interests include environmental law and policy, human rights and environment, and sustainable development.

The plight and outlet of climate refugee protection

1. As the climate worsened, many people had to leave their hometowns and migrate to other places, such as some people living in small island states that affected by global warming. What can the international community do to help climate refugees and what does the future hold for them?

Please allow me to clarify that from a legal perspective we do not speak of climate refugees. Under international law, refugees have a specific definition, which includes a fear of persecution based on ethnic, religious or other characteristics. Therefore it is preferable to use the phrase climate migrants. Even this phrase is challenging, because people migrate for a wide range of reasons, often multiple reasons (economic, social, cultural, environmental, political, etc)

The majority of climate migrants actually are displaced within their own nations and do not cross international borders. Nevertheless, the international community still has obligations--some related to international climate law, others related to international human rights law.

First, all nations must take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a greater burden upon wealthy states and major emitters, according to the international legal principle (found in both the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement) of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities. Second, nations must cooperate to ensure migrants receive humanitarian assistance, as set forth in the UN Compact on Migration.

2. In recent years, climate change has become an unavoidable global public issue. What is the concern of different actors around the world in global climate governance?

There are three key issues:

a) Mitigation--reducing emissions and increasing sinks (that absorb emissions)

b) Adaptation--preparing for and planning responses to the inevitable changes already underway and anticipated

c) Loss & Damage--compensating the Small Island Developing States and Low Income Countries that are already suffering severe damage caused by climate change.

States must cooperate in all three areas, and again wealthy State and major emitters must take a leadership role. Existing mitigation pledges are inadequate to meet the Paris Agreement targets of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or preferably 1.5 degrees. Through Nationally Determined Contributions due this year, States must submit increasingly ambitious mitigation commitments. A failure to do so violates their human rights obligations, as courts in the Netherlands and Germany have ruled. Wealthy States pledged to mobilize $100 billion in climate finance annually beginning in 2020. Despite some progress they have not yet fulfilled that commitment. And on Loss & Damage, wealthy States have failed completely with not a single dollar yet committed to the Small Island Developing States and Low Income Countries. Those latter States have made compelling proposals for fees on aviation and shipping that could raise tens of billions of dollars for Loss & Damage

3. To contribute to world climate security, China actively participates in global climate governance. What responsibilities are expected for China to take in global climate governance?

China has a vital role to play in global climate governance, as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases today. China is to be commended for recent announcements strengthening its targets for 2030 (peak emissions) and 2060 (net zero emissions). China also leads the world in solar electricity generation, wind electricity generation and electric vehicle sales. However China could and should do more. Top priorities should be 1) stop building new coal fired power plants immediately 2) stop financing new coal fired power plants in other States 3) support the proposals for fees on aviation and shipping. China's leadership in global climate governance is critical to the future health of humanity and the planet.

Interviewer: Zhao LAN

Interview date: June 3, 2021

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