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Energy poverty, climate change, and the right to health

Date:14 October 2015
Author:GHLG Blog

Energy poverty, climate change, and the right to health: international obligations to cooperate for clean cook stoves?

By  Marlies Hesselman , University of Groningen,

Yesterday, a main Dutch news paper, the NRC, reported that 13 Dutch big and small development organizations and private companies, united in the ‘Dutch Approach for Clean Cooking Solutions’, have asked for or support that the Dutch government continue to sponsor clean cooking stove alternatives in developing countries, partially because the effects for climate change would be positive. The letter by StichtingHIER Klimaatbureau can be found here. This post reflects on another dimension of this debate. Namely, are clean cook stoves are a human right to health concern as well? Why might combatting ‘energy poverty’ in other countries be a matter of international human rights obligations for the Dutch State? What is the role of these 13 NGOs and private companies?

Picture in NRC newspaper article from 13 October 2015
Picture in NRC newspaper article from 13 October 2015

Energy poverty and the human right to health: the “forgotten 4 million”

Energy access as human development and health concern

As an article of the Dutch newspaper NRC rightly notes: cooking on poor cookstoves is the ‘silent killer in the kitchen’ in many Third World developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 4 million people die prematurely annually from the effects of indoor air pollution, caused by simple, but harmful cooking fires. Amongst these deaths are many women and children. The UN, moreover, estimates that currently 2.6 billion persons  (40% of the global population!) still cook on inefficient and harmful stoves fueled by biomass, wood, or charcoal. This is the reason why the UN launched the ‘Sustainable Energy For All initiative‘ in 2011, and why the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 7.1.) include a specific goal to end this situation. The WHO has referred to the 4 million energy poverty deaths as the ‘forgotten 4 million’, because it is still uncommon to see energy poverty as a  major health concern, despite the figures. So how to take the energy poor – and their clean cooking needs – on board, not (only) because it is good for climate change, but also because energy poverty causes more human health concerns than other diseases combined, e.g. malaria , HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis.

Is energy access a human rights concern?

Energy access is not recognized as a human right explicitly in international human rights treaties generally. A notable exception is Article 14 of the 1979 UN Women’s Rights Convention. This treaty refers to a right to electricity for rural women specifically. A valid question is, as with all ‘new’ human rights concerns, whether a specific right to energy access needs to be recognized? Similarly to the human right to water, the right to energy access might well be subsumed in other existing rights, such as the rights to adequate standards of living, or the human right to the highest attainable standard of health, for example. Both these rights are legally recognized in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Netherlands has signed and ratified this treaty, as have many other States. When digging just a little deeper, it actually becomes clear that the international human rights framework is not silent on ‘energy access’ at all. For example, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights already referred to electricity access  in its interpretative 1991 General Comment on the Right to Adequate Housing. This same Commitee also recognized in Concluding Observations  that electricity access is amongst the basic essential services that are part of the ‘social determinants of the right to health‘. And similar observations go for other Committees. Moreover, about two-thirds of all States reporting on the implementation of the ICESCR in the past 5 years have reported on aspects of access to energy services. Interestingly, so far, most references in the UN human right system relate to ‘electricity access’, not so much the matter of clean cooking. The forgotten 4 million, again? Or is electricity access (currently 1.2 billion without) more a matter of protection of socio-economic rights, than clean cooking?

What does a human rights approach to the issue of energy poverty, and clean cooking specifically, bring to the table?

Recognizing that energy access might be a human rights concern for all human beings, makes energy access a concern of all the individual ‘forgotten 4 million’ living in very unhealthy energy poverty conditions daily, i.e. are dying from it. In makes energy access a matter of rights and obligations. Human rights law implies obligations to act. More specifically, the human right to health implies States’ obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to health and, potentially,  energy access as part of it. It implies that energy access (e.g. as ‘underlying determinant of health’) should be available, accessible (physically and economically), acceptable and of good quality (the so-called ‘AAAQ’-requirements) to all. It also implies an obligation for States to take steps individually and jointly with others to meet human rights in one’s own country and elsewhere (Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and see the Maastricht Principles on Extra-Territorial Obligations). This also brings me to a final observation in this post, and right back to the article in the NRC today. International human rights law requires international cooperation as a matter of obligation and not as a matter of charity. The extent of obligations are not fully settled in legal terms, but a solid reference point in the discussions has been a contribution of 0,7% of GNI (Gross National Income) to official development assistance (ODA), as a minimum per year by 2015, and agreed in the context of the OECD . The Netherlands was recently again under critique for its lowering of contributions of ODA beyond such. The question is, therefore, whether limiting ODA on important development aims raises a human rights concern. In other words: is it valid that the 13 organizations and companies call for renewed budget allocations from the Dutch government on cook stoves, e.g. from a perspective of cooperation for the right to health? At the same time, increasingly, international human rights law also accepts that other non-State actors, such as NGOs and private companies, have their own (seperate) human rights responsibilities to respect, perhaps even ensure/fulfill human rights in their work; solid legal obligations  for companies are increasingly discussed.

In this sense, the letter of 13 organizations and companies to the Dutch State for increased efforts on energy poverty and cook stoves, certainly could be perceived through a human rights lens very well. Such a lens implies that rather than ‘development cooperation’ just being a matter of charity (and waning State budgets on this matter), the individual and joint cooperation for human rights is an obligation of States. In addition, rather than human rights ‘just’ being a matter of (poor national) States within their territory, or a hobby of other actors, it also suggests that human rights inspires a different outlook on international cooperation generally. Finally,  importantly, a human rights approach implies a serious calls to arms to take human rights promises, responsibilities and obligations serious. At a minimum, it deserves development challenges to be looked at through a lens of human rights.

The Dutch response to the letter will be interesting to follow. The more so since the recent Urgenda case also affirmed another set of Dutch national obligations to counter a global concern, i.e. stepping up efforts on climate change.

Marlies Hesselman is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen. Her PhD  deals with ‘universal access to modern energy services’ (SDG 7.1) from a perspective of international law. Marlies also publishes on the links between ‘human rights and a healthy environment’ more broadly; on socio-economic rights and essential public services provision (joint edited volume forthcoming); and on ‘extra-territorial human rights obligations for economic,social and cultural rights’. She is speaking on the Urgenda-case and human rights in The Hague on 22 October 2015.


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