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A view of the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, November 1, 2021.  © 2021 Human Rights Watch

The climate crisis is taking a mounting toll on lives, health, and livelihoods of people around the world. States have a human rights obligation to protect people from the foreseeable harms we face from climate change, and to avert the most catastrophic impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the warming of the planet.

During the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this week, governments will announce a slew of unilateral and multilateral commitments to advance global efforts to address the climate crisis.

These commitments could help spur urgently needed progress on multiple fronts – including, among others, efforts to preserve forests and phase out fossil fuels. But their impact will depend on how comprehensive and ambitious these commitments are – and on what concrete steps governments take to fulfill them.

Here are three of the areas in which Human Rights Watch is leveraging our research to press governments for ambitious commitments at COP26 – and for immediate and effective actions to meet these commitments going forward. 

Preserving Forests

More than 100 countries have signed on to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. This is a positive step, but there remains a gulf between the commitments enshrined in this declaration and their actual policies.

A forest fire rages in Santo Antonio do Matupi, southern Amazonas state, Brazil, August 27, 2019. © 2019 Associated Press

Deforestation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the combustion of fossil fuels. Curbing deforestation is essential to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Industrial agriculture is the leading driver of tropical deforestation, and most of this environmental destruction is illegal. It is often associated with serious rights violations, such as labor rights abuses, forced displacement, land invasions, and violence and intimidation against Indigenous communities and other local populations that play a crucial role in protecting the forests.

Many of the countries that hold the world’s largest forest resources continue to have policies that encourage – or undermine efforts to halt deforestation. And none of the world’s major economies currently have adequate laws in place to restrict the import of agricultural commodities that drive global deforestation and are linked to human rights abuses, though there are signs of progress in this direction in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Governments should produce plans to meet their commitments under the Glasgow Declaration that include intermediary targets and monitoring mechanisms to hold them accountable to its goals, take steps to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, tackle violence and intimidation against forest defenders, and adopt regulations that restrict the trade in commodities linked to deforestation and related human rights abuses.

Read more HRW analysis of the Glasgow Declaration here.

Phasing Out Coal

In July, COP26 president Alok Sharma said, “Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal to history.” The need for new commitments on coal at the climate summit is all the more urgent given the failure to reach an agreement on phasing out domestic coal use at the recently concluded G20 meetings, largely due to opposition from China and India, the biggest users of coal for power.

Steam billows out of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Huai'an in east China's Jiangsu province, July 20, 2021. © 2021 FeatureChina via AP Images

Coal is the highest-emitting fossil fuel, responsible for 30 percent of global emissions, and a major contributor to the air pollution that takes such a devastating toll on health of local communities. Since the last COP, there have been encouraging announcements about limiting financing for coal, and several countries have reduced their reliance on coal. Yet it remains the world’s main source of electricity, and large emitters have shown little willingness to transition away to cleaner energy sources.

Governments should announce concrete steps to phase out coal, including halting the development or expansion of thermal coal mining projects and retiring existing coal-fired power plants.

Read more HRW analysis of COP coal commitments here.

Ending State Support for All Fossil Fuels

The UK will be announcing a new alliance to phase out international public finance for fossil fuels. This initiative could play an important role in advancing the transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy. But more is needed.

Governments give billions in financial support to fossil fuel industries each year, incentivizing fossil fuel production, locking in polluting infrastructure, and delaying climate action. Ending government support for fossil fuels – not just international public finance but also domestic subsidies – is critical to reducing emissions and ensuring governments can tap into their full resources to support and protect the rights of populations bearing the brunt of climate impacts.

Governments should commit to ending not only international public finance but also domestic subsidies for fossil fuels, while protecting low-income households from associated price increases.

Read more HRW analysis of proposed alliance to end fossil fuel finance here.

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