Mary Robinson & Tara Shine 

Nature Climate Change volume 8, pages 564 –569 (2018) Cite this article


It is vital for climate justice to pursue a pathway to zero carbon emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change on people and their human rights. But can such a pathway be achieved without undermining human rights and restricting the right to development? This Perspective discusses the risks of action and inaction to identify a fair and just transition. It compares the risks posed to human rights from climate impacts with the risks posed by climate action and suggests that rights-informed climate action can maximize benefits for people and the planet.


Climate justice is a concept that views climate change and efforts to combat it as having ethical implications and considers how these relate to wider justice concerns1. Climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly2. It is informed by science and responds to science. As a result, climate justice strives to achieve the 1.5 °C temperature goal and avoid dangerous climate change. This approach is underpinned by a desire to respect and protect the human rights of all people, particularly those living in vulnerable situations, in the face of climate impacts and through climate actions.

Climate change is well established as an issue of ethics and justice3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11; in terms of climate impacts (including asymmetrical impacts12 and skewed vulnerabilities13), the international climate negotiations14, responsibility for climate responses15 and the role of climate policies in protecting and strengthening basic capabilities such as human rights16. So far considerations of ethics and justice have primarily focused on responsibility, distributive justice, burden sharing and equity, including intergenerational equity17. As the global temperature rises ethicists ask: if the international community accepts that climate change is happening, understands its causes and knows what needs to be done to change course — how can it justify its continued delays to act on the scale, and with the urgency, required14? Answering this question leads to many more ethical questions about the fact that the benefits of industrialization have been enjoyed primarily in developed countries, while the costs in terms of climate change are borne by the entire global community and future generations18. Linked to this is the question of the right to development. If developed countries became rich by burning fossil fuels that have consumed the majority of the Earth’s carbon budget, how can people in developing countries reap the same benefits of development without burning the fossil fuels that would surpass the remaining carbon budget and lead to global warming well in excess of 1.5 or 2 °C: an outcome that would be disastrous for people in all countries19,20. This challenge, to lift people out of poverty and achieve national development goals, without fossil fuels, is the very real and very daunting task facing developing countries today21. It is also at the centre of discussions on just pathways to 1.5 °C.

Until the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, unpacking of these ethical questions focused on what equity and justice meant in terms of the design of a new climate regime. Now, with the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda in place, the focus moves to how justice and equity can inform implementation. The preamble to the Paris Agreement includes a commitment to respect human rights and gender equality in all climate action. This is a less explored and less well understood area of climate justice: how human rights can inform climate action — particularly the aggressive climate action needed to pursue a 1.5 °C pathway.

This Perspective investigates whether it is possible to make the rapid transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient development without undermining human rights, including the right to development. First the impacts of climate change on human rights are assessed, followed by an appraisal of the risks to human rights from climate action and international regulations on GHG emissions. Both sets of risks are then compared, and the implications for climate action consistent with a 1.5 °C pathway are discussed to identify the critical factors for a fair and just transition.

Climate risks to human rights

Human rights are the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family22 and human-induced climate change is putting these rights at risk. For example, the right to health is undermined by the impacts of climate change. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. The direct damage costs to health from climate change (that is, excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between US$2–4 billion per year by 203023. Action on climate change is critical for the realization of the right to health24.

Table 1 demonstrates that climate change poses an immediate threat to people around the world and undermines the full range of human rights25. The Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council have concluded that the risks posed by climate change to human rights are considerable at 1 °C to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. At 2 °C of warming, unique and threatened ecosystems such as the Arctic sea ice and coral reefs would be at risk, with impacts on the right to food and the right to an adequate standard of living. Consider, for example, the people directly reliant on coral reefs for their livelihood and diet; 2 °C or more of warming will be detrimental to coral reef ecosystems and as a result will undermine the right to an adequate standard of living for at least 30 million people and undermine the rights of up to 500 million people26. Extreme weather events pose a high risk for human health, urban infrastructure and resource-dependant livelihoods such as farming and fishing. At 2 °C of warming, sea-level rise could exceed 1 m and crop production would be at risk, with impacts on global food security and the right to food.

Table 1 Climate change impacts and affected human rights

Climate change ImpactsImpacts on human/social SystemsHuman rights affected
Temperature risksIncreased health risks/fatalities from diseases and natural disastersLife
Risk of extreme weather eventsIncreased water insecurityPoverty, adequate standard of living and means of subsistence
Threats to unique ecosystemsLoss of livelihoodsFood and hunger
Changes in precipitation and distribution of waterChanges in agricultural productivity and food productionHealth
Threats to biodiversityThreats to security/societal cohesionCulture
Sea-level rises, flooding and storm surgesEffects on human settlementsProperty
Large-scale ‘singularities’Land and property leading to migration and displacementAdequate and secure housing
 Impacts on political/public servicesEducation
Damage to vital infrastructure and public utilitiesWork
Loss of cultural integrityProperty
Decline in natural systems servicesWomen’s, children’s and indigenous people’s rights
Distribution of impacts (vulnerable, poor and marginalized people are hit first and hardest)Self-determination

Beyond 2 °C the climate moves into unchartered territory. The risk of triggering positive feedbacks such as the release of carbon from soil increases, as does the likelihood of passing climate tipping points, where greenhouse gas emissions change the climate so much that it is impossible (or extremely difficult and costly) to return it to its original state. The risks and uncertainty associated with such tipping points make it correspondingly more difficult for states to fulfil their obligations under international law to respect, protect and promote human rights.

A study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published in 201527 reviewed the projected climate impacts associated with a global mean temperature increase of between 1.1 and 3.1 °C (under IPCC Representation Concentration Pathways (RCPs) 4.5 and 6.0) and noted the affected rights in each case. Neither this report nor the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Special Procedures could assess the difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C of warming with respect to outcomes for human rights. Nevertheless, both conclude that human rights are already being undermined by climate impacts and that the risk rises incrementally as temperatures increase.

The risks from climate action

The imperative for climate action at scale has increased with the commitment to keep global temperature increase well below 2 °C and to pursue 1.5 °C. The result is a drive for more climate action, at scale and in a more immediate timeframe. Despite the implications of climate impacts for human rights being well established (as discussed above), the potential risks to human rights from climate action have been less well documented.

Climate actions that do not respect human rights can have direct and indirect negative impacts on people and their rights (Table 2)28. In 2009 initial concerns were raised about the impacts of mitigation policies on human rights29. This included impacts on the right to food due to changes in land use or increasing food prices due to competition between crops for food and for biofuels. Since then further examples have come to light demonstrating that climate adaptation and mitigation projects that are designed without the participation of local people can lead to conflict or to the project being rejected by the community30,31. Climate action including reforestation and afforestation, hydroelectric dams, wind or solar energy installations and biofuel plantations pose risks to human rights. The rights affected include the right to housing and to a livelihood, the right to water and to food, and the right to take part in cultural life27.

Table 2 Potential direct and indirect risks to human rights from climate action

Direct impactsIndirect impacts
Inadequate consultation with citizens and communitiesIncreasing food prices and energy costs
Displacement (sometimes violently) of people and communitiesLoss of livelihoods for communities employed in fossil fuel sectors
Exclusion from, or diversion of, essential resourcesDiminished developmental progress reducing the overall ability of countries to provide conditions for the realization of rights

There are already examples from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Clean Development Mechanism and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) where climate action has resulted in human rights violations27,32. For instance, the construction of the Barro Blanco Dam — a Clean Development Mechanism project in Panama33. According to civil society organizations, the indigenous community has not been adequately consulted and their right to free, prior and informed consent has not been respected. The issues have been brought before the Inter American Human Rights Commission and in 2016 the Government of Panama withdrew its registration of the project under the Clean Development Mechanism34, demonstrating that formal compliance with CDM rules is not enough to avoid human rights infringements33.

There are also cases of renewable energy projects having negative impacts on human rights35. For example, the Baharini Electra Wind Farm in Kenya, operated by Electrawind and Kenwind and financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Over 8,000 local Mpeketoni residents were allegedly not informed of the project’s intention to acquire their land, and were not offered any compensation or alternative settlement. The local residents filed a lawsuit at the Lamu County Assembly to stop compulsory acquisition of their land. The project was then approved with a number of conditions, such as the requirement to give priority to local people for employment, and provide land and monetary compensation to 259 families. Community consultation and hearing the concerns of the people who will be impacted by the project kept the project from suffering devastating economic and social losses.

There are also human rights aspects to adaptation to climate change36. Large-scale adaptation projects related to infrastructure such as dykes, coastal management systems and rerouting transport systems can pose risks to human rights. Take, for example, a planned relocation from a coastal village or small island that is no longer habitable. Without adequate consultation with the local community, consideration of socio-economic and cultural issues, as well as the choice of a suitable new site with adequate resources to re-establish the community, there is a risk of increasing, rather than decreasing, people’s vulnerability37, a concept known as maladaptation38. As many adaptation actions take place at the local level, the need to ensure adequate involvement of communities in decision-making has so far received more attention than in mitigation, and is often expressed as rights-based or community-based adaptation39,40,41,42.

The Paris Agreement (building on a decision adopted at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 16) in Cancun and a series of Human Rights Council Resolutions spanning almost a decade) establishes the links between human rights and climate change in international law. This is an important signal to climate policymakers to integrate human rights into climate policies, plans and actions, but it does not assure legal certainty43,44. The question is whether these signals will be adequate to ensure a human rights informed transition.

Risks from impacts versus action

When determining whether or not climate action on the scale needed to phase out carbon emissions by 2050 is consistent with climate justice, it is important to compare the risks posed to human rights from climate impacts to the risks posed to human rights by climate action.

Warming of 2 °C or more leads to large, biophysical, unpredictable — and in many cases irreversible — risks that humanity is ill equipped to deal with, negatively undermining the rights of millions of people around the world. Limiting warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would mean that climate-related extremes that are rare now would be part of the new climate normal, but the climate would remain within the upper end of present-day climate variability and would avoid entering a new climatic regime45. In turn, it is assumed that the climate-related risks to human rights would also be reduced and the extreme injustice of loss of livelihood, displacement or loss of life would be less than they would otherwise have been.

However, the climate actions required to achieve the 1.5 °C goal will be at an unprecedented scale and evidence shows that responses to climate change are already posing risks to human rights. This is particularly the case when climate actions do not take the rights of people living in the vicinity of renewable energy infrastructure or adaptation infrastructure into account.

Of particular note is the likelihood that a 1.5 °C pathway will require the deployment of new technologies, especially those needed to achieve negative emissions. This includes bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and carbon capture and storage from fossil fuel installations and solar radiation management46. There are concerns about the wide-scale deployment of these technologies and their ethical implications, including the realization of human rights47,48,49. There are questions about the biophysical and socially acceptable limits on the scale of land required for bioenergy, for example, and the potential negative impact on food security, soil nutrients and water availability50. Although the risks associated with warming above 1.5 °C are biophysical and unpredictable, the risks posed by climate action at scale can be managed by human institutions and are driven by processes that have a better chance of being predicted and controlled. Human society has centuries of experience in developing policies and plans, building infrastructure and investing in development. There is evidence of what works and what does not, and there is at least an imperfect knowledge of what needs to be done to protect human rights when taking action as an individual, a company or a country. Sectors ranging from mining and forestry to agriculture and energy have experience of how to avoid human rights infringements and deliver benefits from rights-based approaches51. Many of these are the same sectors that will be central to climate action — so in many ways it is a question of acting on the learning and good practice generated so far.

Human rights are legal guarantees that protect individuals and groups against actions that interfere with their fundamental freedoms and entitlements. Human rights obligations, standards and principles can shape policies for climate change mitigation and adaptation and ensure accountability for climate commitments24. Although the Paris Agreement does not create any new human rights obligations on member states, it does remind states that their existing human rights commitments apply to all aspects of climate decision-making and action.

There are guidelines to help policymakers and businesses to respect human rights; including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights52, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises relating to responsible business conduct in a global context53 and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines and Principles on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights54. Few of these guidelines address climate change specifically, but the norms and procedures they advocate are equally applicable to climate action. In addition, tools such as environment and social governance reporting can be used by companies to ensure their actions are good for both people and the environment55.

Procedural rights, such as the right to information and the right to participation, are increasingly being highlighted in the context of climate action56,57. Most states have several procedural obligations that apply to climate change decision-making, including duties to assess environmental impacts and make environmental information public; to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making; and to provide access to remedies for harm57. Although ensuring rights of access to information and participation in climate decision-making are not a panacea (particularly if the quality of participation is poor58,59), meaningful participation that is informed by access to information can increase public support, promote sustainable development and improve the protection of rights60.

The significance of these procedural rights in ensuring that climate action does not lead to human rights violations cannot be overestimated61. Procedural rights have been interpreted as critical to the exercise of substantive human rights, such as the rights to life and health62. By respecting and fulfilling procedural rights in climate action, the risk of undermining a wider range of rights can be averted, and the contribution of climate action to sustainable development enhanced63.

The climate actions required to keep warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels will need to be informed by human rights to mitigate the risk of any negative impacts on people. While society has relevant experience, lessons have been learned and guidance is available to help states and businesses to protect human rights; the challenge lies in respecting the provisions of existing human rights treaties in the execution of climate policy and action64.

Climate just pathways to 1.5 °C

Climate justice recognizes that that the only way to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels is for all countries to take appropriate climate action, in line with the universal nature (that is, it applies to all countries regardless of their level of development) of the Paris Agreement. Even with aggressive mitigation action in developed countries, mitigation in developing countries can be no less aggressive. Developed countries must accelerate their decline in emissions, and with equal effort must support climate action in developing countries21. Although the previous two sections highlighted the risks to human rights from climate responses involving infrastructure and technology, this section also considers how international regulations on carbon emissions could restrict the right to development in developing and emerging economies. This is illustrated in Fig. 1, which shows that developing countries face the greater challenge in the rapid transition to 1.5 °C as they have to develop and lift their people out of poverty while reducing emissions at the same time21. This means that the citizens of developing countries are doubly at risk — due to their vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change as well as the fact that their opportunity to reduce this vulnerability, increase adaptive capacity and achieve sustainable development could be limited by international climate regulations on GHG emissions65.

figure 1
Fig. 1: Carbon phase-out by 2050.

Figure 2 shows a set of developing countries, and their projected annual per capita incomes during the 2015 to 2025 time period21. There is a substantial range of incomes across countries, but most developing countries will be considerably less wealthy when their emissions need to peak than most developed countries were in 2010. For example, China is projected to have an income one-sixth to one-half of the income levels of the United States in 2010 at the time it needs to peak its emissions. Indonesia and India are projected to have per capita incomes corresponding to the income level of the United States in the 1890s at the time their emissions peak21. At that time, industrialization in the United States was based on the consumption of fossil fuels and its emissions were increasing incrementally. At this same level of development, countries such as Indonesia and India will need to be eliminating GHG emissions — and adopting green growth strategies — at an annual percentage rate similar to the rate at which the United States had been increasing its carbon emissions21.

figure 2
Fig. 2: Annual per capita income of several developed and developing countries when emissions peak.

This transition away from fossil fuels will need to take place while most of the developing world’s citizens are preoccupied with maintaining or improving their livelihoods and raising their material living standards. Yet the only proven routes to development involve expanding access to energy services, which up until now has depended on the consumption of fossil fuels66. As a result, the challenge is to meet the demands to develop and to decarbonize simultaneously and to forge an alternative route to the rapid expansion of sustainable energy services for all67.

Although there is now plenty of evidence that it is possible to achieve growth without emissions68, the challenge facing developing countries, and in particular least developed countries, is unprecedented. No industrialized country has achieved its wealth without fossil fuels. The scale of this challenge has to be acknowledged and support provided for a just transition. If not, climate injustice will extend well beyond the adverse impacts of climate change to include restrictions on the right to development of people in developing countries.

Countries such as Ethiopia and Mongolia are adopting a green economy approach to their development that decouples economic growth from GHG emissions69,70. UN Environment (formerly UNEP) defines a green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities71. Countries pursuing a green economy are putting in place policies and plans that can contribute to 1.5 °C pathways while achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and enabling social development. In less developed economies the success of these strategies in practice depends to a great extent on access to investment, including climate finance72.

A just transition to zero carbon by 2050 is possible, but only with the necessary scale of international cooperation, comprising both financial and technological support. The commitment made by developed countries in Copenhagen at COP15 and reiterated at COP 21 in Paris, to mobilize US$100 billion per year of public and private finance by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, lies at the lower end of the estimates of the finance needed to enable developing countries to adopt 1.5 °C-compatible development pathways73,74.

Developing countries, including those most vulnerable to climate change, have shown that they are ready to lead on climate action75,76. However, to put the pledges they have made through their Nationally Determined Contributions into action they will require financial and technical support from the international community (these commitments consist of unconditional and conditional elements. The conditional elements require support from the international community). This should not be seen as charity; it is an investment in our common future; because if the countries of the world don’t make the transition to zero carbon together: (1) the 1.5 and 2 °C goals will be surpassed and everyone will suffer the consequences, but the most vulnerable people in society will suffer most; and (2) there is a risk of exacerbating inequality by creating a world where those who can afford green energy and clean air leave behind a poorer majority who have no option but to use fossil fuels and live with the pollution they produce.

Developing countries need to be supported to realize the right to development in the context of climate action. This is often expressed as the right to sustainable development; that is the right to develop in the context of global policies to reduce GHG emissions and achieve sustainable development. The right to sustainable development is captured in the UNFCCC (Article 3.4) and is reflected in the Paris Agreement, which emphasizes the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions have with equitable access to sustainable development. An equitable transition to a zero-carbon society depends on all countries being enabled and empowered to play their part in global climate action and in achieving the SDGs. In fact, ending poverty, achieving sustainable development and stabilizing climate change are mutually reinforcing objectives77.


In all countries, at all stages of development, the key to making these pathways to 1.5 °C just extends beyond equity and access to finance to include attention to human rights. As climate action increases in scale and in urgency, it will be critical to ensure respect for human rights in the design and implementation of these actions. If not, there is a risk of undermining individual rights in pursuit of climate action to protect the climate system as a global good. Respecting human rights in climate action will also strengthen the 1.5 °C pathways as promoting procedural rights such as the rights to information and participation help to engage more people in climate action78,79, whereas attention to substantive rights can help to identify actions with co-benefits in terms of development, the SDGs, resilience and mitigation. For example, mainstreaming gender equality into climate action leads to benefits in terms of sustainable development, women’s empowerment, increased resilience and low carbon-development80. A just climate pathway to 1.5 °C has people at the centre — it never loses sight of people, and their rights — while pursuing ambitious and climate resilient actions towards the goal of sustainable development.

The transition to zero carbon by 2050, with global emissions peaking in 2020, is by far the best way to achieve the 1.5 °C temperature goal that is a prerequisite for climate justice. Without it, the impacts of climate change associated with 2 °C or more of warming would undermine the full range of human rights, in many cases irreversibly (for example, the right to food, right to water, right to self-determination for Small Island Developing States). For this transition to be just, all aspects of climate action have to be informed by human rights. Much of what is required to respect human rights in climate action is already established as good practice, if not universally implemented — access to information, the right to participation, gender equality, respect for indigenous peoples’ rights — and will have to become the norm in planning and implementing climate action.

As a result, we find that the risks to human rights of climate inaction and of climate impacts far outweigh the risks to human rights posed by climate action consistent with meeting the 1.5 °C goal set in the Paris Agreement. This is a new challenge for humankind, requiring that the reserves of empathy and humanity are found to meet it.

All states need to be enabled to take part in the transition to zero carbon so that they can reap the benefits of clean air, green jobs and food security — all of which are critical to achieving the SDGs. All countries and all people need to be enabled through access to financial investment and technology to be part of this global effort, by respecting their rights and investing in their agency to drive change. Climate justice puts these human factors at the centre of decision-making on climate change, to inform policies that are good for people and good for the planet.

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We thank C. Clarke for reviewing the early drafts of this Perspective. We also acknowledge P. Baer and S. Kartha, who prepared a paper for the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice on Zero Carbon Zero Poverty in 2015 that informed this Perspective. P. Baer is missed by all who work on climate justice and we dedicate this article to his memory.

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Authors and Affiliations
  1. Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, Trinity College, Dublin, IrelandMary Robinson & Tara Shine

M.R. and T.S. wrote the initial version of the paper. T.S. led on reviewing and analysing the literature, and on redrafting with inputs from M.R.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tara Shine.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Cite this article

Robinson, M., Shine, T. Achieving a climate justice pathway to 1.5 °C. Nature Clim Change 8, 564–569 (2018).


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