From COVID-19 to climate change: Are there lessons for a human rights approach?

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From COVID-19 to climate change: Are there lessons for a human rights approach?

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are two global crises with similarities that are significant from a human rights perspective.

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged at a time when the world was already struggling with climate change, a no less devastating global emergency. Both crises are linked to what is called the Anthropocene, an age characterised by humankind’s disruptive interactions with the delicate earth system. The causation and initial transmission route of COVID-19, as studies show, is bat-human, a development that reflects humans’ uneasy interaction with the environment. In terms of effects, the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins continues to report the increasing spread of cases and mortality. In similar vein, humans’ use of environmental resources for large-scale agriculture, construction and logging, and combustion of fossil fuels, is a cause of climate change. Also, climate change generates problems, including heat waves, flooding, pollution and a rise in sea level that threaten global human health and livelihood. In terms of their adverse effects, both COVID-19 and the climate crisis have been shown to constitute threats to the enjoyment of human rights. Hence, at the very least, the human-environment link of COVID-19 is a reminder to the world to reflect more thoughtfully on human actions underlying climate change and its adverse effects.

There is a further lesson of importance to the climate crisis from the interventions being advanced in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Just as the climate crisis worsens the situation of vulnerable groups, the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Lockdown measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection by restricting freedom of movement have confounded access to work, food, water and sanitation, and education, just as response measures to climate change may also adversely affect vulnerable populations. However, one temporary positive side-effect of lockdown restrictions—namely, a global reduction in air pollution—reveals that some measure of restraint on the human activities that underlie the climate crisis could be crucial in addressing the vulnerability of the earth system and populations to climate change.

This gives rise to an interesting question: in a climate change context, could a human rights approach be used to limit rights and at the same time ensure their protection?

Generally, a human rights-based approach seeks to empower people to actualise their rights and ensure the accountability of individuals and institutions who are responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling rights. Hence, rights activists are always, and rightly so, suspicious of states’ attempts to limit rights. Yet, limitations are part of the narrative of international human rights law. They are, in other words, part of the regime of rights protection. Furthermore, the global wave of relief measures such as financial and material assistance in response to COVID-19 confirms that the side effects of limitations can be purified by co-occurring actions that reduce impact, and in so doing, aid realisation of rights. Consequently, in the context of a rights-based approach, the COVID-19 pandemic and its relief measures reveal that the limitation of rights in the pursuit of the collective goal of public health is not necessarily inappropriate, in particular when measures are effectively designed and implemented to address any negative effects.

Understanding the application of the human rights approach in the above manner offers two important lessons for climate change interventions. The first is that we need better framings of allegedly competing interests. States often hide under the right to self-determination to dispose of environmental and natural resources within their territory, with little or no consideration for emissions underlying climate change. The thinking has been that any restriction on such activities may slow down economic growth and therefore deprive states of the revenue needed to ensure the realisation of socio-economic rights. However, this thinking is misplaced in that it ignores the existential threat posed by climate change to the overall enjoyment of rights: it ignores the reality that a safe climate is needed to ensure the realisation and enjoyment of rights. Also, it negates the global urgency in the climate agenda of keeping global warming within the aspirational 1.5 °C ceiling. What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is that a restraint on a right may not necessarily occasion a violation where it protects a collective goal necessary to sustain continual enjoyment of rights. We can build on this in the climate-crisis context so as to reconcile states’ right to self-determination with the global agenda on climate change interventions.

The other lesson stems from states’ relief measures in response to COVID-19, which suggest that damaging side effects of lockdown measures can be contained through parallel measures that seek to enhance rights. Similarly, in the context of climate change, whatever a state might lose by pursuing economic self-determination in a restrained way in the interests of the climate can be rewarded through other opportunities that exist within the global agenda to address climate change.

In particular, affected states could be compensated via technological transfer and climate finance as envisaged in the Paris Agreement. Under the Agreement, these opportunities can readily be understood as an issue of human rights: the Agreement’s preamble urges states to take into consideration their human rights obligations to vulnerable populations in all climate actions. Moreover, technology transfer and climate finance are crucial actions in addressing climate change.

When viewed in this way, an apparent restriction on states’ right to self-determination creates not just a gain for the climate by reducing emissions, it may also attract or, at the very least, help push the case for assistance in form of climate finance and technological transfer that may enhance states’ resources to pursue projects that realise socio-economic rights. In other words, the adverse effect, if any, of a limitation on the right of self-determination may be compensated by possibilities that exist in the form of technology transfer and climate finance.

In sum, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that understanding and applying a human rights approach in a holistic way—in particular, balancing the individual and collective goals of human rights—is an essential tool in tackling crises associated with high vulnerability and risk such as climate change.

Ademola Oluborode Jegede

Written by Ademola Oluborode Jegede

Ademola Oluborode Jegede is a Professor of Law in the School of Law, University of Venda, Thohoyandou, South Africa. He holds degrees from Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife (LLB), the University of Ibadan (Master of Public Health) and the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria (LLM & LLD). He has been a research visitor at the Center for International Environmental Law in the USA and the Human Rights Institute at Abo Akademi in Finland. His research focuses on the interface of climate change and biodiversity with human rights of vulnerable groups.

Cite as: Jegede, Ademola Oluborode. "From COVID-19 to climate change: Are there lessons for a human rights approach?", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 25 January 2021,


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