On the sidelines of 54th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC54), this year’s Toxic Free Talks will take place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment. This side event to HRC54 on human rights, detoxification and decarbonization, organized by the Permanent Mission of Chile and co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Germany, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Permananent Mission of the Philippines and the Geneva Climate Change Consultation Group (GeCCco), within the framework of the Geneva Toxic Free Talks, offers an opportunity to disseminate and deepen these issues.

About this Session

In accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 45/17, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Marcos A. Orellana, submits to the Council his annual thematic report, which is dedicated to examining the toxic impacts of some proposed solutions to climate change.

Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently needed to address the global climate crisis. Decarbonisation of the energy matrix and polluting sectors of the economy are indispensable to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. However, some climate technologies proposed in recent years may exacerbate the toxic burden on people and the planet. The Special Rapporteur presents recommendations aimed at accelerating decarbonization and detoxification strategies that are integrated and guided by human rights principles.

In this context, the use of minerals and metals in the technological transformation required for decarbonization poses significant environmental and social challenges, including the impacts associated with their extraction and processing, as well as waste management. Similarly, the just transition in decarbonization and detoxification strategies, including with respect to the closing of coal-fired power plants, raises important human rights issues. Also, the narratives around nuclear power plants and other sources of energy call for their analysis under a human rights lens.

In the face of these challenges, several experiences with good practices could be of great interest to the international community. For example, Chile is developing a lithium strategy, including protections for environmental rights. South Africa has established a Presidential Climate Commission to advise on decarbonization. Germany has decided to phase out coal and nuclear from its energy matrix.

The side event on human rights, detoxification and decarbonization offers thus an opportunity to disseminate and deepen these issues.

About the Geneva Toxic Free Talks

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reports every fall to the Council and to the UN General Assembly on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Toxic Free Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the production, use, and dissemination of toxics and on how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working in reversing the toxic tide.

On the sidelines of HRC54, this year’s Toxic Free Talks will take place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the Special Rapporteur and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment.

Speakers

H.E. Amb. Claudia FUENTES JULIO

Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

H.E. Amb. Katharina STASCH

Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva

Marcos ORELLANA

UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Gustavo LAGOS

Professor of Mining Engineering, Catholic University of Chile

Melissa FOURIE

Commissioner, Presidential Climate Commission of South Africa

Shaun BURNIE

Senior Nuclear Specialist, Greenpeace East Asia

Yves LADOR

Representative of Earthjustice to the United Nations in Geneva | Moderator

Highlights

Video

Live from Youtube

Live in the room

Summary

Opening Remarks

H.E. Amb. Claudia FUENTES JULIO | Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

Chile acknowledges the principles of interdependence and interrelationship of human rights from a holistic perspective, and as such promotes efforts to integrate the carbonization and detoxification strategies fully. We strongly advocate that a fair and sustainable environmental transition requires integrated solutions to duly address climate and human rights challenges, and to not create additional hazards nor aggravate any of the existing threats.

Chile’s Engagements | Chile has put up a National Lithium Strategy that seeks to guarantee that every social and environmental sustainability is a basic requirement for the exploitation of this resource and is a crucial asset to decarbonize the country’s energy matrix. An example worthy to be followed worldwide. Chile also equally supports the call to implement due diligence measures on the environment and human rights along value chains.

Chile would like to emphasize the importance of incorporating a gender perspective into integrated decarbonization and detoxification strategies to ensure that they are jointly guided by a comprehensive approach to fully include international human rights obligations.

H.E. Amb. Katharina STASCH | Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

Our global environment is facing gloomy times. As the Secretary-General said himself, we are running out of time unless we act now. In spite of all our efforts, despite the Paris Agreement, global green house gas emissions have not been reduced enough, sustainable waste disposal is not resolved yet and the decarbonization of the energy mix is not developing fast enough.

Unavoidable side effects are threatening human rights, and that dilemma of good intentions and bad side effects has been stressed well by the report of the Special Rapporteur. The construction of wind plants to reduce CO2 emissions affect birds, natural habitat and threatened mud floods; more waste is created to develop electric mobility backed by batteries; and mining areas that are often located in developing regions with insecure infrastructure exacerbate insecurities due to extraction processing and waste production.

As a result of human activity, we find toxics in the whole environment. It creates a severe threat to the fundamental human rights to health and the right to live. Therefore, we must know tackling climate change is always also a question of justice.

Concerning Germany | We are committed to taking ambitious action towards a coal-free energy mix. Our objective is the reduction of at least 65 percent of the GHGs by 2030 the reduction of at least 88 by 2040 and neutrality by 2045. We want to achieve this by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources. We are proud that we this year managed the exit from nuclear power, as we believe it is leading to waste which will last and sit there for generations.

The Toxic Impacts of Some Proposed Solutions to Climate Change | Presentation of the Report

Marcos ORELLANA | UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Decarbonization is imperative for the viability of our human species on this planet. The question is how we’re going to get there and how fast.

Looking at the interface between decarbonization and detoxification makes sense for the thematic report because the narratives and the economy are moving towards pushing for certain proposed climate solutions that have negative potential impacts on increasing the toxic burden on society:

  • Necessary transition minerals are leading to an increased demand and pressures on mining, most of which occur in the lands and territories of indigenous peoples and aggravate human rights violations. This is exacerbated by certain policies where certain States, instead of strengthening their systems, are weakening them to accelerate the transition.
  • Concerning the electrification of the transport sector, the strong move towards hybrid or electric cars will create new streams of waste.

In addition, false or misleading solutions are being touted.

  • Nuclear: it is already a serious problem in terms of waste management of radioactive waste and for extraction of uranium. Potential catastrophic impacts, such as in Fukushima, lead to uncertainties regarding how contaminated or how clean the waters are.
  • Carbon capture and storage: this abatement technology needs to capture the carbon and store it in a way that is not hazardous or will not affect the climate system. A significant amount of chemicals are used in this technology, and risks of leakage tell us that the solution is not viable.
  • Geoengineering tinkering with Earth systems is a distraction, the focus must be on reducing GHG.

We have a real opportunity to anticipate new streams of waste, and an opportunity to avoid negative impacts on human rights associated with toxic burdens by looking at the life cycle assessment where GHG is one element in a broader mix of considerations including human rights.

Good Practices to Address the Toxic Challenges Associated with Decarbonization

Gustavo LAGOS | Professor of Mining Engineering, Catholic University of Chile

Decarbonization and detoxification are very important objectives but they have not been reached in Chile

Lithium mining in Chile and Indigenous communities |  The Atacama Salt Flat is considered the best lithium deposit in the world, produced a few years ago more than 50% of the world’s lithium (today 30% for material reasons). 30-40% of the lithium in your computers and telephones comes from here. Lithium production is not perfect: it generates waste and it spends energy.

Copper mines are very close, and their exploitation more than 100 years ago. 40% of the copper comes from Chile, and 20% comes from this region. In 1914, Chuquicamata was built and started operating. Therefore, we cannot think of lithium as individually impacting its own communities: these communities were impacted for many years.

The two largest lithium companies in the world operate in Atacama Salt Flat. The extraction site is 200 kilometers from the chemical plant where it is threatened. The two companies are 30 to 40 kilometers from the nearest indigenous community.  The mobility difficulties in this region make the territorial effect on indigenous communities negligible.

The main environmental problem with copper is water. Historically, the industry has extracted a lot of water but it’s now reverting to seawater desalinization. Extraction of water by mining has historically impacted traditional indigenous activities related to agriculture. Human consumption was not under threat as water is extracted from springs up in the mountains rather than from wells. No evidence of territorial displacement because of water lack has been observed. However, invasion by tourism is a reality.

Moreover, the agreements between the states and the companies bring money to the fiscal income and distribute it to the communities. If it may be good, it may also disrupt the culture of the communities.

The new national lithium development strategy | It includes a strategic vision for all the value chain in order to benefit the Chilean people, fiscal sustainability.

It will have cooperation of State-private enterprise, with the State as the lead player, with majority ownership. The State will provide strategic vision and private enterprise will contribute with capital, technology, innovation and market knowledge.

The creation of a public Research Institute for lithium and salt flats will aim to generate a more competitive and sustainable industry. The protection of the environment and communities, through the creation of a network of protected salt flats will also be included.

The development of low impact technologies and consultations with Indigenous Peoples and local populations will also be highlighted. The objective is to become the world leader in lithium throughout the value chain. It looks very good, though it will be very difficult to implement.

Hazardous waste | They are well known, well-characterized, and well-treated. These wastes are stored and transported to authorized treatment facilities at Hidronor in Antofagasta. All these wastes are classified by ATSDR, Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, and their effects on human health and the environment are well understood (lime, chloride acid, sulphuric acid, nitric acid, fluorescent tubes, Batteries, lithium carbonate with acid).

Conclusions | The carbon emissions of the Salar Atacama is the lowest in the world and is probably going to be the first lithium production in the world that comes to carbon neutrality. Fresh water will be brought from the ocean.

  • The participation of Chile in lithium production will decrease in time because the demand will grow very fast. Our participation may be between 10 and 15% of the world’s lithium for the next 50 years.
  • The main environmental problem is the extraction rate. We have not demonstrated the long-term effect but it can be sustainable if well managed.
  • The participation of the state brings more transparency and trust. It generates the lowest carbon footprint of any lithium in the world.

By the end of this decade, all the freshwater used in its operations should be desalinized and brought from the ocean.

Melissa FOURIE | Commissioner, Presidential Climate Commission of South Africa

As a civil society and community-based organizations in South Africa, we deeply appreciate the support provided by Mr. Orellana and all the other UN Special Rapporteurs for the grassroots and environmental justice struggles in our country.

The Presidential Climate Commission of South Africa | It is a multi-stakeholder body with representatives of business, labor, and civil society. It also works to create a social partnership and advise the government on its climate response, to adjust the transition towards low emissions and a climate-resilient economy.

Toxic air pollution from fossil fuels and the benefits of decarbonization for public health | As South Africa is still overly and overwhelmingly reliant on coal-based electricity, everyday toxic air pollution causes premature death and illness. In addition, this produces traps leading people in a cycle of poverty.

The toxic air quality constitutes a clear Constitutional violation, as confirmed by the South African High Court in 2022. If the status quo continues, 800,000 avoidable deaths will be attributable to air pollution from now to 2050 in the country. A straight-line decrease in the use of fossil fuels for industrial and household energy to zero by 2050 will avoid a projected half of these deaths. If the phase-out is accelerated to 2040, it is predicted that a further 150,000 deaths will be avoided.

The Climate Commission recommended a rapid renewable energy build (50-60 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030) to replace our retiring coal power plants, accelerate decarbonization, and dramatically improve air quality and health.

The transition is not an easy one nor a just one. Despite people suffering from an ageing coal fleet with nearly daily power cuts, and despite a rapid take-up of solar PV by the private sector and residential households, the transition remains contested and coal and gas projects continue to be licensed. Small business workers and affected communities are also rightfully anxious about the prospects of a poorly sequenced transition where work and already scarce jobs are lost and not replaced soon enough.

One of the flagship outputs of the Climate Commission is a just transition framework adopted by the South African government in 2022. It sets principles for a just transition and highlights the importance of addressing the issue of the health impacts of air pollution.

The issue of mining for and waste streams from Clean Energy South Africa | South Africa is a world leader in the mining and export of platinum and manganese. The mining industry is avidly exploring opportunities offered by the clean energy transition to open new markets.

South Africa has a devastating legacy of environmental and social harm caused by mining that has been poorly regulated by mining corporations. 6000 abandoned mines and unmanaged mines caused hazardous air, water, and soil pollution for decades, and we are going to have the same human rights violations from the extractive industry carried over into the mining of minerals for the clean energy transition.

Mining-affected communities in South Africa have long advocated for free prior informed consent before new mines are opened, for real participation, for benefit sharing, and for better enforcement of environmental obligations beyond the end of the life of the mine.

To avoid the existing environmental racism, the new waste streams that arise from clean energy require a far more proactive and inclusive approach. South African legislation already provides for extended producer responsibility (e.g.: proper EPR, and investment incentives). South Africa could become a regional hub for solar recycling.

Conclusion | South Africa’s fossil fuel-based development has been at the very expensive cost of people’s lives and health through toxic pollution of our air, water, and soil. We envisage a different future powered by clean energy with an  inclusive, responsible, and non­-toxic to our health or the environment that ensures a more just and equitable climate-resilient future

Shaun BURNIE | Senior Nuclear Specialist, Greenpeace East Asia

80 years of the nuclear age have generated thousands of problems for communities, in particular disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities.

  • Nuclear energy largely has been concentrated in the rich industrialized North, and even then only a minority of Nations have undertaken a full-scale nuclear program.
  • The production of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons requires fuel and the principal source has been uranium. About 39 countries have conducted uranium mining of which about 25 have operated commercial nuclear energy programs.
  • The time frames that we’re talking about in terms of how hazardous the toxic waste from uranium mining is measured in half-lives. They all interact differently with the environment.

Concerns | Because of the current profile of nuclear as some form of Renaissance to meet the climate crisis, there are already additional mines being explored, to be directly impacting indigenous communities. This is unfortunately rarely ever framed from the perspective of those on the front line of uranium extraction and processing.

About three million tons of uranium have been produced. That is misleading because this data omits that only a very small fraction is uranium. Mining uranium generates large amounts of waste, rock, unusable low-grade ore, and uranium ore mill tailings, which can lead to the groundwater contamination of aquifers.

Mining and milling remove what is hazardous nuclear material from a relatively safe underground to the surface.  Very little has been taken into account by the industry in terms of how to control and maintain. Greenpeace would argue that it’s not possible to protect the environment when you start and process uranium.

Within the remaining wastes, many other radionuclides have long-term consequences. Radium 226 can remain hazardous and is way beyond human experience (up to a million years).

Greenpeace 2009 visited the uranium mines operated by the French company Arriva (Orano) in Niger. Very little concern had been taken for the people of the mining area in terms of their health, radiation protection, and management of the waste.

About 80 of the uranium extraction in 2020 takes place in just five countries, none of which have commercial nuclear power plants. The countries that will most be impacted by climate change and the communities that will be impacted again are the ones that are still suffering the legacy of 80 years of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons production.

Conclusion | There is a false narrative being created that nuclear energy can solve the climate crisis, but even the debate on nuclear energy, by helping bring up prices and incenting uranium exploration, is having a direct impact on communities. The recommendation is to effectively give up on the idea that nuclear energy is going to solve the climate crisis and start dealing with the legacies of the past 80 years +.

Discussion

Republic of Marshall Islands

  • Abatement Technologies are needed, and they must not be used to continue fossil fuel expansion.
  • Speaking of legacies, most would be aware of our nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands, where our population continues to suffer.
  • The Fukushima water discharge remains a concern and reminds us all of the imperative necessity for supply chain transparency

Conclusion

Marocs ORELLANA | If the thematic report on decarbonization and detoxification interface’s emphasis is on the issue of risk, it also highlights that the co-benefits of decarbonization for the cleaning up of air are impacting the lives of millions of people. The Presidential Commission on Climate Change in South Africa, sharing advice and detailed analysis, is a good practice that can be emulated in many other countries.

On the lithium strategy in Chile, we can see how dialogue can lead to anticipating impacts and constructively dealing with them.

The integration of decarbonization and detoxification has a protection of human rights angle but also a promotion angle: job creation, capacities, innovation, among others.

Photo Gallery

Documents and Links

Photo Credits

Doc Searls (2010). Flickr.