This week the world turns its attention to the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.  While COP26 is a key moment for global cooperation on climate, the UN human rights system is also integrating climate into international human rights law, with significant implications for Australia. Recognition of the links between climate change and human rights is being driven, in part, by determined diplomacy from Australia’s Pacific island neighbours.  

Recognising the right to a healthy environment 

On 8 October in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council recognised the human right to a healthy environment.  This is an historic breakthrough that means citizens can demand their governments consider, in their policymaking, the need for clean air, water and food for humans to thrive.   

While many countries recognise the right to a healthy environment, this is the first time the right has been explicitly recognised at the global level. Key elements of international human rights law – including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – do not directly mention the right to a healthy environment.   

Recognising the right to a healthy environment could be especially important as the world faces the rising impacts of climate change.  The World Health Organisation estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Mental health issues are also expected to increase. 

Also in October, the UN Child Rights Committee (CRC) ruled that a State could be found responsible for the negative impact of its carbon emissions on the rights of children both within and outside its territory. 

A new Special Rapporteur on climate and human rights 

The Human Rights Council has also appointed a new Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Climate Change.   

This appointment was the culmination of a diplomatic campaign led by Pacific island countries. At the COP25 UN climate summit in 2019, then Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine, speaking on behalf of 48 countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum, called for the creation of a dedicated rapporteur on climate change and human rights.  In 2020, member states of the Pacific Islands Forum – including Australia and New Zealand – formally backed the call.  

In 2021, Fiji ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan became president of the UN Human Rights Council. Then, in the lead up to the Council vote, the Marshall Islands mission based in Geneva hosted a panel on human rights and climate change.  This helped win support for the proposal, and it was adopted with considerable support (despite abstentions from India, China and Japan, and Russia voting no).  

The Special Rapporteur has a mandate to study the ways that the adverse effects of climate change impact the realisation of human rights, and to make recommendations for promoting and respecting human rights in the design and implementation of climate policy.  

Implications for Australian policy and legislation  

While more than 100 countries have already recognised the right to a healthy environment in domestic legislation, Australia has yet to follow suit.  Global recognition is a unique opportunity for Australian governments to give effect to the right to a healthy environment as well.  While Australia also does not have a national charter of rights., jurisdictions with existing human rights legislation – Victoria, Queensland and the ACT – will need to think about expanding the scope of their human rights legislation to include this new right. 

In 2016 the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment found that states have obligations to implement commitments made under the Paris Agreement, but also “to strengthen their obligations in the future, in order to ensure that global temperatures do not rise to levels that would impair a vast range of human rights”.  

In the lead up to the Glasgow climate summit, Australia has resisted pressure from other advanced economies, and from Pacific island neighbours, to set a more ambitious Paris Agreement target to reduce emissions by 2030, and to commit more finance to help developing countries cope with the impacts of a warming world.  

Now, with the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change, countries like Australia will be expected to take into account the human rights impacts of their climate and energy policies. Increasingly, they will be held to account if they don’t. 


Professor Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of the Policy Innovation Hub and a member of the Law Futures Centre. She is the research lead of the Climate Justice theme of the Griffith Climate Action Beacon and co-convenor of the Gender Equality Research Network with Professor Sara Davies.

Christian Lane is a graduate from Arts/Law at Monash University and a 2022 Judge’s Associate at the District Court. His interests include the intersection between gender, human rights and climate change as well as social entrepreneurship in the legal sector.

Dr Wesley Morgan is a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. He is also a researcher at the Climate Council. Wesley’s research considers regional climate diplomacy in Oceania, and the international context for Australian climate policy.

This article has been written for the Road to COP26 series for the Griffith Climate Action Beacon.