The eyes of the world are currently on Glasgow, as states are gathered for the landmark COP26 climate summit. There is so much at stake and time is running out for the world to come together and take the serious and far-reaching transformations that are needed for us to prevent runaway climate change and protect communities on the frontlines.
Yet when you consider the fact that just 100 companies, including the largest oil, coal and gas companies, are responsible for 70% of all global carbon emissions to date, it is clear that we cannot address the climate crisis without also addressing the issue of corporate accountability.
In recent years, there has been a huge rush for natural resources, and corporations are trampling on people’s rights and destroying the environment in the process. Mining activities are poisoning rivers. Huge swathes of rainforests are being cut down in the pursuit for land and timber. Our precious natural resources and fragile biodiversity are being devastated by corporate activities.
For example, in the Niger Delta, the Dutch oil giant Shell has been active since the 1950s, and a staggering 11 million barrels of oil have been estimated to have been spilled in the region since that time. Oil spills are continuing on a weekly basis, and this has had a devastating effect on the fragile local ecosystem. Contamination levels in the water is 900 times above World Health Organisation standards.
It’s not just the environment that is being harmed, it’s people’s health and livelihoods too. A reported 16,000 children die every single year as a result of the pollution, and life expectancy in the Niger Delta is ten years less than in the rest of Nigeria. And the oil that isn’t spilled? This oil ultimately ends up creating huge amounts of carbon emissions that are contributing to pushing our planet to its limits.
Furthermore, as we transition to decarbonise our economies in the coming decades – with growing demand for minerals for electric vehicles, and land for offsetting projects, we will likely see further violations of people’s rights unless companies are better regulated. Already, those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, such as land and environmental defenders are being attacked and killed. 227 defenders were killed in 2020, making it the most dangerous year on record.
For years we have allowed corporations to grow in power and influence, the global economy becoming increasingly complex and interlinked, with profits soaring for the few. While at the same time, communities adjacent to great natural wealth have suffered from exploitation and abuse. The legal framework hasn’t kept pace with this rapid globalisation – and corporations are largely allowed to police themselves.
Yet the tide may be turning. Some European countries like France, Germany and Norway have introduced laws in recent years which require companies to look at their global supply chains and address human rights and environmental damage. The EU is currently looking at introducing similar legislation.
Ireland would do well to step up and follow suit, by introducing a strong corporate accountability law. Such legislation could prevent pollution and exploitation from happening, and protect some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Although we are a small country, as a nation with an open economy that is a major hub for multinationals, our impact could be far reaching.
Indeed, Irish companies and multinationals based here are not immune from this problem. Half of the top 60 companies in Ireland scored less than 20 percent on embedding respect for human rights in their operations, in a recent study conducted by Trinity College. These companies include many multinationals as well as Ireland’s ten-largest state-owned enterprises.
This month, Trócaire, together with a coalition of 20 other organisations has published a new report – ‘Make it Your Business’ – which details cases of companies based in Ireland that are connected with human rights abuses and environmental damage. We also set out a proposal for a strong and effective corporate accountability law.
Without such a law, corporations have been effectively allowed to police themselves – and voluntary measures are simply not working. When you consider the fact that the fossil fuel industry has reportedly more representatives at the COP summit that any individual country at the negotiations, it is clear that the outsized power and influence of corporations needs to be addressed urgently. Indeed, there are more fossil fuel lobbyists attending the COP than the delegates of Puerto Rico, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, Bahamas, Bangladesh & Pakistan combined.
People are increasingly fed up with the slow progress at these summits, and are frustrated by corporate actors being allowed such undue power and influence. Indeed, the Irish public wants to see stronger laws to tackle the issue of unaccountable corporations; a recent IPSOS/MRBI poll showed that 81% of Irish people support stronger laws on corporate abuse.
Irish people are increasingly seeing sustainability and responsible sourcing as issues close to their hearts. Many have become deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the products they buy such as their clothes, their electronics, and their food might be contributing to climate change, environmental damage and connected to labour rights abuses around the world.
Ireland is a country known as much for our championing of human rights as for being a country that is business-friendly. By introducing strong and effective corporate accountability legislation, we can uphold our responsibility to hold business to account and also hold true to the human rights principles we champion globally.
By doing so we would be standing together with the indigenous communities who are trying to protect their rivers, their land, and their forests from pollution, but who are also protecting all of us by defending the natural resources that we all depend upon for a healthy planet. It’s time for us to step up and to act.
Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire