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The Nexus between the Right to Housing and Climate Change – Insights from the Climate Conference COP24 in Katowice, Poland

People living in informal settlements, that is more than 850 million people worldwide and one quarter of the global urban population, are disproportionally affected, but their needs are underrepresented in national and local climate policies, also within the international climate community. We have attended the Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland , to further the widely ignored discussions about the nexus between the right to housing and climate change.

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. At present, global temperature already increased more than 1°C compared to pre-industrial levels and people worldwide suffer from the impacts. People living in informal settlements, that is more than 850 million people worldwide and one quarter of the global urban population are disproportionally affected.

The needs of people living in informal settlements in terms of climate change and climate policies are not only underrepresented in national and local climate policies but also within the international climate community. We have attended the Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland , to further the widely ignored discussions about the nexus between the right to housing and climate change.

Informal settlers most vulnerable to disasters and climate change

Governments worldwide fail to provide safe housing and basic infrastructure for a massive amount of people – and the challenges are increasing. People are frequently driven to live in informal settlements by environmental factors, such as natural disasters or environmental degradation that tend to happen more frequently due to climate change. But, the settlements to which they migrate also place them at risk: Nonresistant houses on land that is at risk of flooding, storm surges, mudslides, earthquakes, or contaminated sites, close to roads, waste and/or factories, is more likely to be vacant and is less likely to be contested for investment or development. The lack of basic infrastructure as access to drinking water, health provision, sewage systems, electricity and education as well as the lack of political and social recognition further exacerbates their vulnerability.

When natural disasters strike, those living in informal settlements suffer disproportionately. Climate change poses them under more frequent and additional risks such as flooding and landslides, provoked through increasing abnormal, heavy rainfalls. Slow-onset sea level rise threatens people and urban infrastructure near the coast; ground water, rivers and soils run the risk to be salinized. Extreme heat can cause severe health problems and death and is a high danger, especially for those who are missing access to basic infrastructure. Poor neighborhoods do not have the possibility to cool their houses and often lack access to drinking water and health care provisions. Extraordinary dry seasons exacerbate water scarcity and food shortage. Irreversible loss and damage through climate change is a reality for many people.

States and local governments fail to harmonize upgrading, climate change policies and human rights for people living in informal settlements

Unfortunately, climate policies do seldom address the needs of people living in informal settlements or are even used to legitimize “modernization”. As States and local governments move forward to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement  and SDG Goal 11[1]  pushing towards protecting these vulnerable communities from the risks of climate change, we are increasingly concerned that it is resulting in mass forced evictions contrary to international human rights law. Climate change and risk management has created an all too justifiable excuse for forcible relocation and massive violations of human rights and the right to housing. The people’s capacities for self-governance and social innovation are mostly underestimated.

For example, a fishing community in Jakarta living on the sea coast was prone to flooding. However, the community figured out that if they were able to cut their houses in half, demolish the front half and live in the back half, they would be far enough from the ocean that they would be no longer be in risk. Instead of being relocated, they were able to remain in their community.

From the 2nd  to the 15th  of December representatives of the 197 contracting states of the UNFCCC came together for the 24th  Climate Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. The biggest issue was to define clear guidelines for Parties, the so called Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP), on how to implement the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, coming into force in 2020, is the only international environmental treaty that makes reference to human rights[2] . However, Parties failed to reaffirm their responsibility at COP24 to fully comply with human rights while implementing effective measures to keep global temperature below 1.5°C and protect people against the negative impacts of climate change in the PAWP, negotiated in Katowice. This is most disappointing as now the so-called rulebook is not in line with the Paris Agreement. The inclusion would have been of high importance to remind each and every Party to comply with their human rights obligations when implementing climate policies. However, there is no excuse for them to avoid their responsibilities. All contracting parties signed at least one international human rights treaty, and the referred Paris Agreement. NGOs will work hard to remind them whenever implementing climate policies and measures. MISEREOR and the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing are promoting the needs of those living in informal settlements or inadequate housing at international fora such as the UN Climate Conferences, by urging states to promote human rights-based approaches within climate change policy.

Key principles for human-rights-based climate policies in informal settlements

In several events and discussions at COP24 we stressed the necessity of a human rights-based implementation of climate policies with a special focus on urban areas and informal settlements. Several key principals were identified: As a precondition Parties must pursue all efforts to limit global heating to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, as agreed in the Paris Agreement. The latest IPCC report [3]  urgently affirms that keeping the limit of 1.5°C would significantly delimitate the negative impacts of climate change. Every tenth degree of temperature increase has dramatic consequences, affecting most marginalized population groups disproportionally. Urgent action to mitigate climate change is needed by all Parties as well as non-state actors. Human rights-based climate policies should contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development by asserting the right to housing as well as their right to a decent life, based on the guiding principle of the SDGs “leaving no one behind”.

If a state policy to climate change and upgrading is to be based on human rights, it must be built on, rather than undermine, the capacities of communities to claim and realize their rights. This means giving communities not only a right to be consulted, but a right to participate in all aspects of upgrading and risk mitigation. This right to participate should be recognized in law and enforceable through legal mechanisms if necessary. Residents of informal settlements must be recognized as rights-holders. This also means giving residents the capacities to make informed decisions about the best approach to upgrading. Civil society organizations can play an important role to support social cohesion, inner organization and capacity building of communities.

A human-rights-based approach to upgrading and risk management must also mean that in situ  upgrading must be carried out whenever possible and desired by residents. A ban on forced evictions should be a basic requirement to all climate and development finance, including its monitoring. Relocation must be an exception to the rule and a measure of last resort. Internationally and publicly financed climate projects have to be reviewed with regard to binding ecological and human rights standards. Multilateral and international cooperation agencies have to provide respective frameworks and safeguards, including monitoring and grievance mechanisms. Transparency is one of the basic conditions.

Strong civil society is needed to push the implementation of people-centered and rights-based approaches

The climate change community, be it governmental, science, business and civil society, has to be more sensitive to the precarious living conditions of informal settlers, who are the least responsible for climate change, but who are most at risk by it. We expect the international climate community to fully comply with human rights while implementing effective climate action on all political levels. We call for multi-level and multi-stakeholder approaches that put people and their rights to the center of international, national and local policies and their effective implementation. We will be particularly vigilant to see Parties and non-state actors comply with their respective responsibilities, including the rights of people living in informal settlements. A strong civil society representation – well coordinated with each other – is needed at all levels of implementation of climate policies from the international negotitations to the boards of climate funds to the national and local level.


[1] Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”

[2] The preamble of the Paris Agreement acknowledges that “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”.

[3] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. Their latest report summarizes the latest science on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.


Julieta Perucca  is the Senior Aide to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha. She is a law graduate from the University of Maastricht, with a degree in International and European Law, and a Political Science degree from the University of Ottawa.

Clara-Luisa Weichelt  is Desk Officer for Sustainable Urban Development with a special focus on International Climate Policies at MISEREOR, the German Catholic Bishops’ Organization for Development Cooperation. She has a Master Degree in International Development Studies from the University of Marburg.


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