Five Latin American Environmental and Indigenous Rights NGOs intervene in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in respect of Chile and Colombia’s Request for an Advisory Opinion on the Climate Emergency

Centro México de Derecho Ambiental (‘CEMDA’), Nuestros Derechos al Futuro y Medio Ambiente Sano, A.C (‘Nuestro Futuro’), Iniciativa Climática de México (‘ICM’), Comité Campesino del Altiplano (‘CCDA’), and Unión Verapacense de Organizaciones Campesinas (‘UVOC’) have jointly made an amicus curiae submission in response to a request for observations from the President of the Court. The submission focuses on the human rights impacts of ongoing methane (CH4) emissions. The signatories are represented by Margherita CornagliaCamila Zapata Besso assisted with the analysis pertaining to Guatemala.

Methane emissions caused 0.51°C of the 1.06°C of total observed global warming between 2010-2019, compared to pre-industrial times. Methane is a potent short-lived climate pollutant: it has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide (around 12 years compared with centuries); however, over a twenty-year period, it is circa 80 times more potent at warming than CO2. Consequently, sustained reductions in methane emissions are key to limit near-term warming, impacting adaptation strategies over the next few decades – which is critical for climate vulnerable countries and populations.

CEMDA, Nuestro Futuro and ICM are organisations which are active in the policy and litigation space in Mexico. They are founding members of the Observatorio Mexicano de Emisiones de Metano (‘OBMEM’), and their work is geared towards pushing for greater action in relation to methane emissions emanating from Mexico’s fossil fuel sector. 

CCDA and UVOC are Guatemalan Indigenous campesino organisations. Last year, Margherita and Camila took part in an independent delegation of international lawyers who assessed the deteriorating human rights situation suffered by Indigenous peoples in rural Guatemala. Camila led the delegation’s fact-finding report, titled “We are not trespassers, this is our land”: Agrarian Conflict and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Alta Verapaz. It drew on the extreme difficulties faced by CCDA and UVOC in defending the rights of its Indigenous community members, in the context of profound land inequality, poverty, administrative obstacles and legal insecurity. Those difficulties are compounded by the severe impacts of the climate crisis, which directly affect communities.

The amicus curiae focuses on matters that are relevant to the following questions posed by the requesting parties: 

  • Question IV(A) regarding State obligations derived from the duties of prevention and the guarantee of human rights in relation to the climate emergency;
  • Question IV(B) regarding State obligations to preserve the right to life and survival in relation to the climate emergency in light of science and human rights; and
  • Question IV(E) regarding the Convention-based obligations of prevention and the protection of territorial and environmental defenders, as well as women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendant communities in the context of the climate emergency.

In summary, the signatories make the following recommendations to the Court:

  • Methane emissions are centrally relevant to states’ obligations to prevent human rights violations and to guarantee human rights, given the significant impact methane emissions have on near-term warming. Continued methane emissions will trigger further near-term warming, contributing to the intensification of a host of risks that endanger human rights – from immediate health risks and increases in extreme weather events, to uncertain, but potentially devastating risks tied to the crossing of climate tipping points and the triggering of self-reinforcing feedbacks. 

  • Mitigation of methane emissions is possible, and methods to abate methane emissions in the three anthropogenic sectors responsible for most methane emissions – agriculture, energy and waste – are known and available. Notwithstanding the availability of these measures, mitigation of methane is well behind what is required for States to comply with their human rights obligations. The amicus brief details two case studies to illustrate impediments to abating methane emissions experienced in the fossil fuel sector (Mexico) and the agricultural sector (Brazil). A third case study (Guatemala) is provided to illustrate the human rights violations suffered by Indigenous peoples that are consequent upon state failures to mitigate methane emissions and to ensure fair adaptation measures that enhance the resilience of Indigenous communities.

  • States have obligations under applicable human rights law to mitigate methane emissions and ensure appropriate adaption to the impacts of climate change and near-term warming.  The amicus brief focuses on the particular relevance of the following principles to the issue of methane abatement and response: (i) the precautionary principle, (ii) the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, (iii) the rights of Indigenous peoples and (iv) access to environmental information and access to justice. In summary, the precautionary principle requires heightened obligations on States in relation to the abatement of methane emissions, and, relatedly, to the provision of appropriate access to information and justice. Further, states must recognise and respect Indigenous rights to land and address vulnerabilities experienced primarily by Indigenous communities (linked, for example, to agrarian conflict, poverty, displacement and discrimination) to ensure maximum methane mitigation and increase resilience in adapting to the near-term consequences of continued methane emissions.

  • The amicus brief concludes with a number of detailed and highly practical recommendations. These are examples of measures that the Court could encourage States to take to ensure compliance with their human rights obligations in relation to their response to methane emissions. These recommendations are in three sets – first, recommendations relating to measures that States may take in the fossil fuel sector to ensure methane abatement in compliance with their obligations under the precautionary principle and other applicable legal principles. Second, recommendations relating to measures that States may take to ensure heightened access to justice and access to environmental information concerning methane emissions and concerning public and private actions and omissions that influence levels of methane emissions. Third and finally, recommendations relating to measures that States may take relating to Indigenous rights, to ensure (i) better mitigation of methane emissions in the land use sector and (ii) that Indigenous communities have the ability to adapt to the consequences of near-term warming, such as to avoid violations of their rights.

The preparation of the brief was generously supported by the Global Methane Hub, an organisation set up to support implementation of the 2021 Global Methane Pledge.  The expert support provided to the signatories in drafting this amicus by the Leave It In The Ground Initiative(‘LINGO’) is also gratefully acknowledged.

The full amicus curiae brief is accessible here.