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UN rights expert David Boyd: ‘Businesses are treating the environment like a free dumping ground’

7 Mar 2024
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UN rights expert David Boyd: ‘Businesses are treating the environment like a free dumping ground’

David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, in Geneva, 5 March 2024. (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)




UN rights expert David Boyd: ‘Businesses are treating the environment like a free dumping ground’

By Michelle Langrand

In the document, presented to the Geneva-based body on Wednesday, David Boyd blasts the business sector for pushing the Earth way past its planetary limits all while blocking efforts to clean up its mess.

Geneva Solutions met with the Canadian environmental law professor the day ahead of his presentation. “Businesses are still treating our environment like a free dumping ground for their waste, producing immense volumes of air, water and soil pollution,” he said. “That massive impact on the environment also has a massive impact on human rights.”

After six years on the job, Boyd decided to step down three months early, partly, he says, because the work has taken a “physical, mental and emotional toll”. In that time, he has celebrated the UN’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment after a decade-long campaign in which the expert was instrumental. But he has also seen the climate crisis worsen. He has been to some of the world’s toxic wastelands, including Cancer Alley, a stretch of land along the Mississippi River with over 200 petrochemical plants, where pollution levels are so high Boyd has declared it a “sacrifice zone”.

Read more: ‘We’re desperate’: Louisiana’s ‘cancer alley’ residents decry environmental racism before the UN

Since joining the UN in 2018, 50 million people have also died due to pollution – a far greater death toll than the ones from conflicts such as Ukraine and Gaza and yet hardly a front-page story, he regretted. “It's just shocking and incomprehensible to me how badly states have failed in their obligations to protect people and the environment from these corporate actors,” he said.


When a few wield the power

For his last act, Boyd doesn’t pull any punches. One of the first paragraphs of the report starts: “Led by the ultra-rich, with their private jets, yachts, massive mansions, space travel and hyper-consumptive lifestyles, humanity is exceeding Earth’s carrying capacity.”

The document is accompanied by an even more sobering “bad practices annex” that singles out by name the world’s biggest polluters. “Saudi Aramco, Exxon Mobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, BP and Chevron, which are absolutely colossal companies, have absolutely massive adverse impacts in terms of air pollution, climate change and water pollution. And yet, these companies are making hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every year,” he noted.

According to his report, the six corporations made “an unprecedented $350 billion in windfall profits in 2022” during the height of the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Boyd also hits out at the murky tactics fossil fuels and other industries, from tobacco to lead, asbestos and pesticides, to cars and plastics, have historically used to protect their financial interests. “These businesses have consistently done three things that have gotten us to where we are today: they deny the science about the impact on health and the environment, then they say there's no alternative, and then they say it's too expensive to change,” he said.

These methods are far from being a thing of the past. “You have the CEO of Exxon Mobil saying, Well, it's the public's fault that the alternatives aren't ready, and we have to keep using oil and gas. Absolute rubbish, right? It's the company's fault. It's the industry's fault that we're in this catastrophic situation today,” he said.

If the business sector has been left to run amok, it is because of the “immense concentration of power” in the hands of a few, according to Boyd. But companies aren’t the only ones at fault.

“Because of their extraordinary economic and political power, these businesses in these industries have taken over governments and are having a disproportionate and devastating effect on the decisions, laws, policies, etc, that governments make. In effect, governments are doing the bidding of these businesses,” he said.

The last climate summit in Dubai, which Boyd describes in the report as a “debacle”, was a glaring example of businesses’ undue influence on governments, or “corporate capture”, as he puts it. A record number of over 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists attended the UN conference and tried to derail state negotiations to agree on a full phase-out of fossil fuel, with states agreeing to a feeble “transition away” from the dirty energy sources.

Boyd’s report cites an investigation by France 24 that found that top consultancy firm McKinsey & Company used its position as Cop28 adviser to push for its big oil clients’ interests.

“Since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated in 1992, greenhouse gas emissions have risen over 60 per cent globally. More greenhouse gas emissions have been released since the Framework Convention on Climate Change than in all of human history to that day in 1992,” said Boyd. “It's clear that despite their public promises, politicians and governments are not putting in place the laws and policies that are needed to address this crisis, and that's because they're under the sway of business.”

In his report, Boyd suggests several ways in which countries can limit that influence, such as outlawing lobbying against environmental laws, criminalising greenwashing, and restricting revolving-door practices that see business executives appointed to government positions only to later return to the private sector.


When promises aren’t enough

This report wasn’t exactly what Boyd had set out to do in the first place. “Part of what I wanted to explore initially was looking at the impact of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, which had been a big focus over the last decade,” he explained.

Endorsed by countries in 2010, the set of guidelines was the culmination of decades of efforts to come up with a global code of conduct for corporations regarding human rights. So far, they’ve fallen short of that promise. “I realised, through my research that these guiding principles are having a very minimal impact on the behaviour of businesses, largely because they're voluntary,” he said.

Boyd concludes in his report that the principles are “completely inadequate to substitute legally binding frameworks”. But negotiations to craft a treaty that would legally impose human rights obligations on global corporations have dragged on for a decade now in Geneva.

Beyond adopting laws and imposing restrictions, the expert said what is needed is “transformative change” in the way we measure how well society is doing. “Our economic system is built on the exploitation of people and nature. And that cannot continue,” he said.

“We cannot continue to measure progress on a finite planet by encouraging infinite economic growth. We need to replace gross domestic product with much more holistic indicators of progress and development. We need to put a price on every form of environmentally destructive behaviour.”

Recent efforts to create carbon pricing schemes to slap a fee on emissions are a step in the right direction, according to Boyd, but they should go further and encompass all types of pollution.

“We're talking about hundreds of billions of kilogrammes of toxic substances being dumped into our air, water and soil for free. The biggest failure of the market system is that it allows the environment to be treated in that way,” he said.

For Boyd, “real change will come from the people”. “This isn't a crisis that any single group or organisation can address. It's going to take an unprecedented convergence of civil society and academics, indigenous peoples, local communities, all coming together and saying, ‘Our future depends on urgent transformative changes’,” he said.

While seemingly nostalgic to be leaving the role, Boyd is glad that he’ll probably be passing on the torch to a woman. Mexican climate justice consultant Astrid Puentes has been nominated by the council’s president to become the next UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. She’s joined by Italian environmental law expert Elisa Morgera, also tapped to be the special rapporteur on human rights and climate change.


BANNER IMAGE: JOHN MESSINA - Wikipedia - A mound of oil drums near the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil Refinery along the Mississippi River in December 1972.



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