Missing from the COP26 agenda: corporate accountability
As the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow unfolds, corporations continue to play a major role in environmental degradation and climate change, either directly through their own operations or indirectly through their global value chains.
Business bears much of the responsibility for wrecking our planet with emissions, pollution, hazardous substances, toxic waste, and nature and wildlife destruction. Yet there is currently no regional EU law to address these adverse business impacts – and this must urgently change.
A critical moment for the EU

COP26 comes at a critical moment for the EU. The European Commission is expected to release a draft law later this year, which may require companies to address risks of human rights abuses and environmental harm in their global value chains. 

But how meaningful will this be? As the largest trading bloc in the world, the EU has the responsibility to take action to stop business activity from causing and contributing to serious and irreversible environmental harm and loss of natural resources at home and abroad.

Countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement were asked to submit improved national targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the COP26 summit. These targets can and should also be translated into concrete legal obligations for corporations. 

As the clock ticks towards 2030, keeping global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees demands taking legislative action to require corporations to account for their actual and potential climate impacts whether it is from their own activities, those of entities owned or controlled, or indirect emissions from their global value chains, investments and other business relationships. 

The EU’s forthcoming rules on due diligence must oblige companies to respect the customary duty to prevent and to adhere to the precautionary approach of international environmental law. Corporations, like states, must also have an obligation of result and be required to remedy any harms related to their climate impacts.

The future directive must include not only an obligation for corporations to respect the environment and climate through environmental due diligence, but also a civil cause of action to seek injunctive relief and redress. 

Judicial developments within climate change litigation are already moving in this direction. In May, a Dutch civil court ruled that by 2030 the oil giant Shell must reduce its CO2 global emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels. This was the first time in history that a judge has held a corporation accountable for its contribution to climate change.

German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest CO2 emitter, is being blamed for the impact of its activities on climate change by a Peruvian farmer whose home is acutely threatened by the potential collapse of two glaciers into a nearby lake as a consequence of global warming. The case is ongoing.

While some successful rulings could be issued where the law is interpreted in a progressive and expansive way, there is no guarantee every court would take this approach. The irregularity in outcomes of court cases proves this. 

It is crucial that all corporations – not just Shell or RWE – can be taken to court, in their home country, for environmental and human rights abuses.

Human rights and the environment go hand in hand

The interrelationship between the climate crisis and human rights is well-established: the detrimental effects of climate change interfere with the human right to food, water, and health. 

Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council recognised that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur David Boydon, this was “a historic breakthrough that has the potential to improve the life of everyone on the planet.” 

Rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, and increased wildfires can no longer be dissociated from human rights impacts. The costs of these impacts, and the measures to address them, often fall disproportionately on those already in precarious positions, such as indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, local communities, women, children and poorly paid workers, particularly in the Global South but also elsewhere.

In stark contrast, profits of the largest and most environmentally-damaging industries, and the wealth of their owners and financiers continues to grow.

Despite growing evidence that the protection of human rights can lead to better environmental outcomes, environmental policy-making still too often excludes or sidelines human rights. 

In October, a broad range of indigenous peoples’ organisations, civil society groups, land and environmental defenders, as well as academics and experts from over 50 countries worldwide have issued an Open Letter to World Leaders, calling on them to ensure human rights are at the centre of all environmental policy. This is what is needed to secure a just, equitable and ecologically healthy world for all.

Game over for ‘business as usual’

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that worsening environmental threats “will constitute the single greatest challenge to human rights of our era.” 

The global climate forum provides a unique opportunity for the EU and other world leaders to uphold human rights standards in the negotiations and acknowledge that corporate environmental and climate obligations must form part of the many actions required to tackle climate change, from the UN Climate Change Conference to the UN treaty on business and human rights to the EU directive on corporate due diligence.

If this summer’s deadly events have taught us anything, it is that we have no time to lose. This is the decade in which we must limit climate change and make our societies more equal and just.