June 21, 2024

Pacific island nations, the Caribbean and the West Indies won a major international legal victory this week that puts more pressure on major governments like the European Union and China to limit their carbon emissions.

On Tuesday, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany, unanimously ruled that state parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea have an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 169 parties to the treaty include several of the world’s leading emitters: China, India, the European Union and Russia. The United States, also a major polluter, is not a party to the convention.

The tribunal said in its advisory opinion greenhouse gases counts as marine pollution and that states parties to the convention must “take all necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution.”

“The ITLOS opinion will inform our future legal and diplomatic work to end inaction that has brought us to the brink of irreversible disaster,” said Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. according to Reuters.

Nikki Reisch of the Center for International Environmental Law, who supported the island nations’ case, said the advisory opinion lays the groundwork for holding major polluters accountable by clarifying their obligations under international law. Reisch said this is the first time an international court has commented on the intersection of oceans and climate change.

“This is a landmark decision in that it adds great weight to the growing body of case law and legal interpretations emphasizing states’ legal duties to urgently and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the environment and human rights,” she said. “This is a testament to the continued courage and leadership of small island states that have truly been at the forefront of the fight for climate justice and accountability and at the forefront of legal developments.”

In 2022, island nations including Palau and Vanuatu first brought the case before the tribunal. They wanted to know what the obligations of government departments are “to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment in relation to the adverse effects resulting or likely to result from climate change.”

The island nations have been dealing with storms, heavy rainfall, coral bleaching and other negative effects of climate change despite contributing relatively little carbon emissions. On islands like Vanuatu, the climate effects are particularly damaging to indigenous Pacific Islanders, some of whom already are face disruption of their ancestral villages.

Reisch said the comprehensive opinion is particularly significant because it makes clear that compliance with the Paris Agreement, the 2015 international treaty on climate change, is not enough.

The opinion said countries should also “take all necessary measures” to ensure that their carbon emissions do not harm other states or their environments.

States parties to the convention also have an obligation to support developing states with climate adaptation, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This includes giving them “preferential treatment in funding, technical assistance and appropriate specialized services from international organizations,” the tribunal wrote.

The tribunal found that state parties also have the legal obligation to monitor greenhouse gas emissions; to report on their observations and analyses, and to protect oceans from acidification. States may even have to restore marine habitats if they have been degraded, the tribunal concluded.

Sarah Cooley of the Ocean Conservancy, who provided expert testimony in the case, praised the tribunal’s embrace of climate science.

“Today’s (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) judgment is a massive victory for our ocean, communities affected by climate change, and science in general,” she said.

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