Climate Action

Climate change: Ocean Tribunal ruling gives power to small island nations 

small island nations are threatened by rising sea levels due to global heating.

'The law and science met together in this tribunal and both won' - Cheryl Bazard, European Union of the Bahamas. Image: Pexels/ Ollie Craig

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Environmental Journalist, EcoWatch
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  • Human-produced greenhouse gas emissions in oceans are officially marine pollution, according to a ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
  • The ruling mandates that countries meet higher standards of emission reduction based on international rules.
  • Small island nations, for decades threatened by rising sea levels, have led the push for this historic decision.

In a historic win for a group of small island nations — including the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda — the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has found that human-produced greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by the world’s oceans are considered marine pollution.

In its first ruling related to climate, the tribunal — a United Nations maritime law court — advised that countries are obligated to safeguard marine environments by doing more than is required by the 2015 Paris Agreement, reported Reuters. Many small island nations are threatened by rising sea levels due to global heating.

“As the legal guardian of the Ocean Treaty, ITLOS has taken a critical first step in recognising that what small island nations have been fighting for at the COP negotiations for decades is already a part of international law,” said professor Payam Akhavan, the legal representative of the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), as Euronews Green reported. “The major polluters must prevent catastrophic harm to small island nations, and if they fail to do so, they must compensate for loss and damage.”

The opinion was requested by COSIS, a group of nine small island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean that are threatened by rising sea levels.

Though the decision is an “advisory opinion”, it should provide precedent for future cases.

“What happened today was that the law and science met together in this tribunal, and both won,” said Cheryl Bazard, European Union of the Bahamas ambassador, as reported by Reuters.

In its opinion, ITLOS said nations must monitor and reduce emissions and specified what their environmental impact assessments need to contain.

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The court also said goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are required to be objectively set and based on relevant international standards and rules, as well as the best available science — a higher standard than the Paris Agreement.

“To those that would hide behind the weaknesses of international climate treaties, this opinion makes clear that compliance with the Paris Agreement alone is not enough,” said Nikki Reisch, Centre for International Environmental Law director, as Reuters reported.

In its opinion, ITLOS makes clear what countries must do about climate change in their national climate plans, national and regional courts and international obligations, such as during talks like the COP29 United National Climate Change Conference, reported Euronews Green.

The tribunal was asked to consider whether greenhouse gas emissions qualified as marine pollution, what a country’s obligations were to prevent and reduce pollution and what their obligations were to preserve and protect oceans from climate change impacts.

The decision of ITLOS that greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans are a type of marine pollution means states’ legal obligation to preserve and protect marine environments under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea applies to the main contributors to the climate crisis as well.

“States also have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment from climate change impacts and ocean acidification,” said Judge Albert Hoffman in the delivery of the advisory opinion in Hamburg, as Euronews Green reported. “Where the marine environment has been degraded, this obligation may call for measures to restore marine habitats and ecosystems.”

Other countries that brought the case before the tribunal were Niue, Vanuatu, St. Vincent and Grenadines, Palau, Nevis and St. Kitts.

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