By Lilian Chiwendu Adat, Anastasia Edward Ulokawaji, and Ahmed Danbello Sani
Climate change is a complex and dynamic problem which requires dimensional and multi-sectoral mitigation and adaptation initiatives within a policy framework to properly tackle it. Climate change does not affect people at the same level. Women and children have been considered the most vulnerable group negatively impacted by climate change in Nigeria. It has been recorded that 1.7 million children lose their lives every year as a result of avoidable environmental impacts. While millions of them are being forced to leave their homes, missing out on school and suffering from diseases (with respiratory diseases increased in children between 0 to 16 years). Some of the effects of climate change include displacement. For instance, the flooding incident in Nigeria towards the end of 2022 affected states like Kogi, Benue, Rivers, Bayelsa and others, leaving so many people especially children out of school for a long period of time. Children who provide the primary labour for the family unit would have to put in the additional effort at supporting various house chores as a result of the impact of climate change. This shows the grave effect of climate change on children and the continued suffering if this matter is not addressed.
These incidences have a greater impact on women and by extension, children are equally affected because of the close proximity between women and children. The children accompany their mothers to the farm and walk long distances daily to execute various chores. It is for this reason that paragraph 11 of the Preamble to the Paris Agreement 2015 acknowledges that climate change is a common concern of mankind and, implores states to ensure they take into consideration the interest of children when adopting measures to address/ mitigate the impact of climate change in their territories. The mentioned above provision of the Paris Agreement 2015 implies; a) that states should take measures to reduce the asymmetrical impact of climate change on children, b) states should also factor in the interest of children when adopting responses for climate change.
2. The United Nations (UN) General Comment
The United Nations General Comment on Children’s Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change (General Comment) adopted on May 2023 was greeted with encores. The objective of the General Comment is to provide authoritative guidance to State Parties to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures of a child-rights approach to environmental issues with a special focus on climate change. In doing so it aims, among other things to clarify the extent of States’ obligations relating to climate change and children’s rights, including with regard to mitigation, and adaptation. It emphasizes the urgent need to address the adverse effects of environmental harm and climate change on children. Among other things, it clarifies how children should be able to exercise their rights to information, participation, and access to justice to protect against environmental harm.
In all, the General Comment shed light on the societal, legal, and other implications of concepts such as “international cooperation” “extraterritorial obligations” “future generations” “intergenerational equity” etc., with a view to improving the measures that the state can take to uphold the rights of the child in the context of the environment and climate change. This comment re-emphasises that children’s right to a healthy environment in each State must necessarily include components of climate change. It enjoins States to adopt measures to ensure that children are protected. The latter include that the peculiarity and interest of the children must be their peculiarity is considered or their interest represented when they are either mitigating or adapting measures to combat climate change within their jurisdiction. This comment is also a step being taken by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the government accountable for ensuring that children live in a clean, healthy, green environment and a sustainable world.
3. The Implication of the UN General Comment
Nigeria has some instruments relevant to climate change and children. In 2021, the Federal Ministry of Environment Department of Climate Change formulated the National Climate Change Policy for Nigeria 2021-2030 representing a decade of response to the impact of climate change. The Policy highlighted Nigeria’s vulnerability to climate change and how it has affected its natural, physical and human capital. The Policy intends to mitigate and reduce the release of greenhouse gases from industries and sectors while taking measures to ensure efficient management of undermanaged sectors.
The Climate Change Act was equally enacted in 2021 which established the National Council for Climate Change. Section 21 obligates the Director General to formulate an Action Plan. This Plan amongst others identifies the different impacts of climate change on vulnerable groups such as children.
It is apt to mention that the General Comment is persuasive and not binding on member states including Nigeria. The reason is that it is not a treaty as properly called under the Vienna Law of Treaties 1969. Regardless, it is valuable given that it is still persuasive. As such, a member state like Nigeria may still be influenced by it to adopt measures to reduce the asymmetrical burden of climate change on children. What is more, as other states are adopting measures to implement the General Comment, Nigeria may be swayed by their actions to do so.
Again, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act 2004 provides for a right to a generally satisfactory environment favourable to human development. It provides for the right to enjoy the best state of physical and mental health. Authors have often identified a satisfactory environment as a precursor to the best state of physical and mental health. However, there is a dearth of case law on whether the definition of a generally satisfactory environment would translate to the protection of children against the asymmetrical burden of climate change.
In the same vein, the Child Rights Act (CRA)2003, which is the overarching law for child rights in Nigeria, does not provide for the protection of the Child against the asymmetrical burden of Climate Change. The CRA 2003 provides for the right of a child to survive and develop in Nigeria. Environmental protagonists may argue that the child’s right to survive and develop under the CRA implicitly includes protection against the asymmetrical burden of climate change. However, there is no case law or legislative interpretation that has imported the said right to survival and development against the asymmetrical burden of Climate Change. Thus, the said position is at best speculation which may or may not happen.
Thus, there is a strong imperative for clear legislative measures that address the asymmetrical burden of climate change on children. The General Comment is not binding given that it is not a treaty within the context of international law. However, like every soft international instrument, it has persuasive effects. Its persuasiveness is further helped by peer pressure arising from other countries adopting measures for its implementation. Thus, a country like Nigeria may be influenced to adopt legal measures for specifically addressing the asymmetrical impact of climate change on Children.
A mere assessment of the impact of climate change on different categories of persons especially children is not sufficient for their protection in Nigeria. Since the environment needs to be preserved both for the present and future generations, the government should take more positive steps to ensure that children are provided with a safe, clean and healthy environment for the continuity of society because they represent the future generation. Thus, pursuant to the General Comment, there is a need for the adoption of legislative measures that emphasize the protection of children against the asymmetrical burden of climate change. The Child Rights Act 2003 is already an overarching law on child rights and ancillary issues.
The Act should be amended to incorporate a child’s right to a healthy environment including protection from the asymmetrical burdens of climate change. It should also detail measures for the implementation of the right.
Lilian Chiwendu Adat, LLB, BL, LLM, Executive Associate at Alliance Law Firm
Anastasia Edward Ulokawaji, LLB, BL, Associate at Alliance Law Firm
Ahmed Danbello Sani, LLB, BL, Associate at Alliance Law Firm