“Children have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”

September 18, 2023

United Nations’ General Comment on child rights, the environment and climate change must be a catalyst for urgent action by Government to reduce emissions and protect children’s rights.

The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child today officially launched its General Comment on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change. According to the Committee, the General Comment came about as a result of the efforts of children to draw attention to environmental crises.

Community Law & Mediation (CLM), a community law centre which specialises in environmental justice and children’s law services, is calling on the Government to heed the findings of the report, which states in unequivocal terms that “the triple planetary crisis, comprising the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, is an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally”, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The report also makes it clear that the effects of climate change will not be felt equally; vulnerable children are most at risk of feeling the impacts of the climate crisis first and worst, including within developed countries such as Ireland.

The General Comment has been published at a critical juncture for climate action globally and in Ireland. Despite declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, Ireland’s emissions have remained persistently high. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently warned that Ireland is projected to fall “well-short of climate targets” and called for the urgent implementation of “policies that deliver emission reductions across all sectors in the short term.”[1] The Climate Change Advisory Council further warned that “The Government needs to set out credible and detailed implementation plans to enable us to achieve our ambitious targets.”[2]

CLM has consistently warned that the longer transformative climate action is delayed, the more difficult the transition will be, particularly for children and future generations. It is calling on the Irish Government to take climate action in accordance with its legal obligations to avoid unduly burdening young and future generations with drastic emissions reductions in the future.

This view is shared by the German Federal Constitutional Court, which found in Neubauer et al v Germany[3] that “one generation must not be allowed to consume large portions of the CO2 budget while bearing a relatively minor share of the reduction effort, if this would involve leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and expose their lives to serious losses of freedom.”[4] In a groundbreaking legal decision last month (August), a Montana court found in favour of 16 young plaintiffs that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional.

Commenting on the publication of the General Comment, Clodagh Daly, Manager of CLM’s Centre for Environmental Justice said:

“Climate change is an inter-generational injustice without precedent. It is no surprise that children have been leading the way in the fight for climate justice. Children are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and it is not about protecting a planet they will inherit – it is about protecting their rights today. That is why Community Law & Mediation provides free legal advice on children’s rights and environmental justice. We welcome the UN General Comment and call on the Government to deliver deep, rapid and sustained reductions in emissions to vindicate the rights of children in Ireland and around the world.”

Ruth Barry, children’s law solicitor at CLM said:

“The climate crisis is ultimately a children’s rights crisis. As the UN General Comment highlights, environmental protection applies to all children’s rights as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to be heard, the right to education, the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, the right to access to information and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. These rights must be protected amidst an escalating climate and biodiversity crisis. Environmental decisions generally concern children, and the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in the adoption and implementation of environmental policies.”

Community Law & Mediation provides free legal advice on children’s rights and environmental and climate justice and calls on the Irish Government to act urgently on the UN’s recommendations to protect children’s rights.

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Community Law & Mediation and the Centre for Environmental Justice

Community Law & Mediation is an independent community law centre and charity, working since 1975 with communities impacted by social exclusion, disadvantage and inequality, through the provision of free legal advice, advocacy, mediation and education services.

In 2021, CLM established the Centre for Environmental Justice which works to ensure low income and marginalised communities are not disproportionately impacted by climate change or other environmental harms, and that environmental measures and climate action protect and build equality and social justice. CLM also provides a specialist children’s law service to support young people and families with legal issues.

Appointments for our free legal advice clinics on environmental and/or children’s rights can be booked by contacting 01 847 7804 or filling in the clinic form here.

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – General comment No. 26 (2023) on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change

In this general comment, officially launched on 18th September 2023, the Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasises the urgent need to address the adverse effects of environmental degradation, with a special focus on climate change, on the enjoyment of children’s rights, and clarifies the obligations of States to address environmental harm and climate change. The Committee also explains how children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child apply to environmental protection and confirms that children have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

According to the Committee, the efforts of children to draw attention to environmental crises created the motivation and were the momentum behind this general comment. The Committee’s children’s advisory team supported a consultation process with children from 121 countries, through online surveys, focus groups and in-person national and regional consultations. The Committee also received inputs from States, experts and other stakeholders through two rounds of consultations on the concept note and first draft of the general comment.

Climate Action Case – Community Law & Mediation and Friends of the Irish Environment

Community Law & Mediation is representing Friends of the Irish Environment, an Irish environmental non-governmental organisation (eNGO), in its High Court legal challenge of the Irish Government’s Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP23) and its corresponding Annex of Actions.

 

The legal challenge has been launched by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) against the Irish Government over its failure to show with a sufficient level of specificity that the Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP 23) and its Annex of Actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with Ireland’s legally binding carbon budget – a breach of the Government’s legal duties under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 (as amended).

Despite declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, Ireland remains the second worst emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and the latest stark projections by the Environmental Protection Agency and analysis by An Taisce show that Ireland will fall significantly short of its legally binding 2030 climate targets.

This case is being taken because Ireland has a legal and ethical duty to adhere to its obligations on climate change, to protect children, citizens and communities from the most dangerous impacts of the climate crisis and to prevent the need for more abrupt and forceful action later.

[1] Environmental Proteciton Agency. 2023. ‘Ireland projected to fall well short of climate targets, says EPA.’ l (epa.ie)

[2] Climate Change Advisory Council. 2023. ‘Statement by the Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council following the publication of Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Projections 2022 to 2040’ l (climatecouncil.ie)

[3] Learn more about the youth led Neubauer v Germany watershed victory here.

[4] https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/EN/2021/03/rs20210324_1bvr265618en.html;jsessionid=2D79A2FF1A584C978D3717BA2FA42736.2_cid377