COP26 and Beyond: Public Participation and Accountability Are Keys to Progress

This blog post is the text of the presentation by Professor Alan Miller to the “Responses to the Human Rights Implications of Climate Change” Symposium of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina held on 29 October 2021


The science and our living experience of climate change is no longer up for debate. Its current and future impact upon our lives, livelihoods and ways of life represent the greatest 21st Century threat to the enjoyment of human rights. The UN Secretary-General is right to state that we are at “Code Red” for humanity.

There is hope and it needs COP26 to signal a leadership of both humility and ambition.

The best way to bring this about at and beyond COP26 is through increased public participation and accountability. Systemic and transformative change is required. Business as usual is unsustainable. Politics as usual is failing abysmally. Both are bringing humanity to the abyss. People’s interests and rights represent the future of humanity and need to be at the centre of all decisions. A power shift is required to enable this.

A human rights-based response to climate change

The best way to achieve this power shift is through adopting a human rights-based approach and promoting and demanding climate justice whereby people become empowered as rights-holders and governments become accountable as duty-bearers.

Our equal and full enjoyment of the internationally recognised human rights to life, an adequate standard of living, including food and housing, health, education, social security and decent work is only possible in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

Consequently, we are seeing a human rights-based response in the global mobilisation of youth demanding inter-generational climate justice, in the “debt for climate” – converting debt to climate action funding - demands of developing countries and in the increasing demands of civil society organisations for a transformative rights-based global governance and economy.

In such a model, the role of governments would be to generate and use the maximum available resources for progressive redistribution and realisation of people’s human rights to lives of dignity.

The UN continues to strive to take steps to respond to the groundswell of public demand for climate justice and a better world. These steps are significant, if painfully slow, and are currently being constrained by those member states seeking to undermine multilateralism and prioritise their own perceived narrow self-interest.

However, the tools do exist in the forms of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of 2015 and the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

Most importantly, both of these international voluntary agreements align with governments’ pre-existing UN human rights treaty legal obligations and, if implemented through the public holding governments to account, they can together transform our world.

At a national level, the experience and emerging good practice of UN field presences in countries across all regions is demonstrating that a human rights-based approach, including increased public participation and holding governments to account for their human rights commitments, are the key barometers of progress in the realisation of the SDGs, including climate action, and the Paris Climate Agreement.

At an international level, a human rights-based response, including public participation and accountability, is also becoming increasingly evident.

For example, following a groundswell of public opinion, the UN Human Rights Council adopted earlier this month a watershed resolution recognising the international human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Under the same public pressure, it also established a mandate for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change who will monitor and make recommendations on how governments should best meet their human rights obligations to combat climate change.

This month also saw the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child become the first international body to break new ground in ruling that under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child governments have an extra-territorial obligation to curb emissions  interfering with the human rights of children living beyond their immediate borders.

These significant developments will give further impetus to the growing climate litigation around the world. This litigation is seeking to hold to account governments and corporations for their carbon emissions and so help cut through the rhetoric and inaction.

Courts are increasingly taking into account the will of national parliaments and international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement, which defines the necessary emission reductions, the legal obligations and inter-generational equity required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the responsibilities of business under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

This increasing public participation and increasing accountability of governments as part of a growing human rights-based response to climate change needs to be forefront among the considerations of leaders at and beyond COP26.

We have run out of road to kick the can down. The science of human survival is compelling. In the face of the scale of this challenge, humility and ambition in equal measure must be the watchwords of leadership at COP26 and beyond.

COP26 and Glasgow, Scotland

In this sense, it is fitting that COP26 is taking place in Glasgow in Scotland – a small country and yet a cradle of the industrial age based upon the exploitation of fossil fuels and now committed to a human rights-based response to climate change.

Scotland rightly has a humility in recognition of this past but also has an ambition and sense of responsibility to demonstrate leadership through a just transition towards a greener and fairer future economy.

There is both ambition in its climate targets and adoption of climate justice as well as in its introduction of a new human rights framework to help it meet today’s challenges.

The Scottish Government is currently preparing a Human Rights Bill based upon the Report recommendations of its National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership. This new framework, aligned with the SDGs, will include the “right to a healthy environment”, incorporate key UN human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and introduce innovative and effective forms of public participation and of accountability.

Public participation and accountability are central to the preparatory process and will be central in the implementation of the new human rights framework. Of course, much more needs done and more urgently but this starting point of humility and ambition, along with public participation and accountability, is opening up the way forward.

The impact of the pandemic – the systemic inequalities it exposed along with the need of increased economic and social resilience – is actually serving to increase the determination and scale of ambition throughout Scottish society and well beyond to “build back better” from the pandemic and the underlying climate crisis.

Lessons from the response to and recovery from the pandemic

The response to and recovery from the pandemic provides lessons for the response to climate change and demonstrates the need of a human rights-based approach to both the pandemic and climate change.

Science, governments, public services and people have come to the fore in response to the pandemic and brought about dramatic impacts upon our everyday lives in efforts to save lives and livelihoods. The urgency and scale of governments’ access to and use of resources has shown just what is possible when there is political will.

At the same time and just as with climate change, the inequity between the developed countries and developing countries along with the role of the market have also come into sharp focus.

Governments have used unprecedented public finance to subsidise vaccine research and development and to guarantee a vaccine market for the pharmaceutical companies. However, the governments of wealthier countries have then facilitated an inadequately regulated free market for these companies to create a vaccine inequality and perpetuate a world of the rich and of the poor. This free market model of vaccine distribution is not fit for purpose. There must be technology transfer and a waiver of intellectual property rights in recognition of the compelling needs of global public health in our inter-dependent world.

Equally, an inadequately regulated free market in natural resource extraction, including fossil fuels, has been at war with the natural environment and contributed to not only a series of zoonotic diseases, of which this Covid 19 pandemic is but only one and not the last, but also to the climate crisis itself.

A human rights-based approach to both the pandemic and climate change means that the public must increasingly hold governments to account. Governments should simply govern. To govern is to respect and protect humanity and our environment and enable the enjoyment of human rights and lives of dignity for everyone in every part of our inter-dependent world.   


What then does a human rights and climate justice response need at COP26 and beyond?

Firstly, delegates and leaders need to demonstrate leadership based upon honesty and humility in their open recognition of the scale of challenge and the necessary transformation going way beyond any commitments and implementations to date.

Secondly, they need to act upon their duties under international human rights law, which underpin the voluntary Paris Agreement and SDGs, and demonstrate an ambition that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge. This must include meaningful public participation and accountability.

Thirdly, nothing will succeed without recognition of the inter-dependence and differentiated responsibilities within our societies and our world. Equity and a just transition within and among all countries need to be central to all efforts.

Whilst COP26 itself is unlikely to achieve all of this in the current circumstances it needs to deliver, and in a convincing manner, the momentum necessary to enable this progress beyond COP26.

Let Glasgow be the change we need to see.