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Philippines takes carbon emitters to task

The Southeast Asian nation has launched the world’s first governmental inquiry into the impact of climate change on human rights

Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips and 45 other major oil and gas producers have been summoned to appear before a year-long inquiry led by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in the Philippines. The aim is to investigate the role of large carbon emitters in causing climate change.

The investigation was launched in 2015, following a group petition from Greenpeace and others which alleged that 50 so-called "carbon majors" have contributed to climate change and impacted the rights of the citizens of this low-lying island nation.

After two years of fact-finding missions, the CHR held its first formal hearing in Quezon City in late March. Subsequent hearings are due to take place in the Philippines in May, June, August, October and December. Interim sessions will be held in New York in September and London in November.

In a statement, the chair of the CHR, Roberto Eugenio T Cadiz, said the inquiry was intended to be "global, inclusive and dialogical rather than adversarial" and to result "in the improvement and/or development of measures to further protect and promote human rights in this era of climate change".

To date, none of the carbon emitters listed in the Greenpeace petition have appeared before the inquiry, with some challenging its authority to operate.

The CHR investigation is the world's first governmental probe of this kind. It's being widely seen as a first step in efforts to quantify the damage caused by industrialisation and, ultimately, to pinpoint which organisations could be held to account.

Fossil fight

"This is a huge moment in the fight to make fossil fuel producers pay their fair share of climate change costs… It is now time for the world's biggest producers of fossil fuel products to explain how they will lend their weight to the most important challenge of our time," ClientEarth lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said.

"These companies," he continued, "have made life increasingly dangerous for the people of the Philippines and around the world, and there is mounting evidence that they have known the risks of their activities for at least the past 50 years."

The petition from Greenpeace Southeast Asia and 13 other non-governmental organisations and 18 individuals called on the CHR inquiry to investigate "50 investor-owned carbon majors". Greenpeace calculates that these have contributed a total of 315 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO 2e)-equivalent to 21.72% of estimated global industrial emissions-up to 2010.

"The carbon majors' findings are of serious importance and consequence to the Philippines due to the country's high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change," Greenpeace said. The carbon majors "should be held accountable" for violations or threats of violations to life, physical and mental health, food, water, sanitation, housing and self-determination resulting from the adverse impacts of climate change.

The Greenpeace report alleges that 90 carbon major entities, including the 50 investor-owned carbon major companies, are responsible for an estimated 939 gigatonnes CO2e of cumulative world emissions of industrial CO2 and methane, or 65% of all anthropogenic CO2 between 1751 and 2013.

The CHR inquiry joins other efforts being taken worldwide to account for the impact of climate change on private individuals and their way of life. In the United States, Colombia, the Netherlands and Ireland, civil lawsuits have been brought against some of the world's largest oil and gas companies and governments. They are accused of failing to protect individuals from the risks and consequences of global warming, including erratic weather events and sea level rises.

Meanwhile, the international investor community is stepping up pressure internationally on carbon emitters to account for their actions or risk seeing funding withdrawn. Through the Financial Stability Board's Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, investors are pushing listed companies to quantify and disclose to investors the impact that climate change will have on their businesses in a low carbon future.

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