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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

International sea tribunal finds member countries must cut emissions to fight climate change

Small island nations that say their very way of life is threatened by climate change brought the request for an opinion.

HAMBURG, Germany (CN) — Judges at the world’s top maritime tribunal said on Tuesday that countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to combat the adverse effects of climate change, marking a historic win for environmental activists. 

In a nonbinding advisory opinion, the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea found that countries must take action to fight back against rising global temperatures and increasingly destructive storms. 

“States parties to the convention have the specific obligations to take all necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution from anthropogenic (greenhouse gas) emissions,” Judge Albert Hoffmann said to the standing-room-only courtroom. 

The Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law asked the court’s 21 judges to clarify parties' legal obligations have under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

The international court concluded that greenhouse gas emissions are a form of marine pollution and thus can be regulated by the convention.

“It’s a legally historic day,” Catherine Amirfar of the commission's legal team told reporters after the hearing. 

Warming ocean temperatures make it harder for marine life to survive, disrupt ocean currents and wreak havoc on ecosystems. As the water in the ocean heats up, it expands, causing sea levels to rise. Melting ice also increases sea levels. 

According to Shobha Maharaj, the science director at global reforestation group Terraformation, small island nations are bearing the brunt of climate change. “There are islands with problems, and islands with more problems,” she told Courthouse News in an interview last year.

During two weeks of hearings last year, an eclectic group of more than 40 countries participated in the proceedings. The treaty has 169 members, 168 countries and the European Union. States ranging from Australia to China to Belize presented oral arguments to the court

Following what they saw as a lack of action following the UN's 2021 climate change conference, COP 26, Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu initiated the move to form a coalition of similar countries to look for legal avenues to combat climate change. 

“The time has come to speak in legally binding obligations rather than empty promises,” Gaston Alfonso Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told the court during hearings in 2023. 

The ruling calls on countries not to shirk their legal responsibilities, even in light of financial and political hurdles, but the tribunal's judges acknowledged that not all countries will be able to mount the same response.

“The scope and content of necessary measures may vary depending on the means available to states and their capabilities, such as their scientific, technical, economic and financial capabilities,” the opinion says. 

While the opinion is not legally binding, decisions from the tribunal are seen as carrying significant weight.

“The opinion is an authoritative view of legal binding obligations,” international environmental law expert Joie Chowdhury told Courthouse News. 

It's the latest ruling in a series of climate change cases before international courts. Early this month, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights found that member states have an obligation to protect their citizens from climate change. 

Montana is home to what is believed to be the first case against government authorities in the United States for failing to prevent climate change. The state’s constitution calls for the protection of a “clean and healthful environment” and the 16 young plaintiffs say the state isn’t doing enough to meet that standard. 

Two other advisory requests are pending. A request by Colombia and Chile is currently being considered by the the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The top court of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, is expected to hold hearings next year into a request from the General Assembly to weigh in on what all 193 U.N. member states should be doing to combat climate change. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Environment, International

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