Historic ITLOS ruling: Greenhouse gas emissions classified as marine pollution in landmark decision

This landmark ruling obligates countries to take all necessary measures to prevent global temperature rise above 1.5°C, marking a significant step forward in the fight against climate change and the protection of marine environments.

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In a groundbreaking decision, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has declared that greenhouse gas emissions constitute marine pollution under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This landmark ruling obligates countries to take all necessary measures to prevent global temperature rise above 1.5°C, marking a significant step forward in the fight against climate change and the protection of marine environments.

The ITLOS advisory opinion, delivered today, addresses longstanding concerns raised by small island nations and environmental advocates. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has long provided a framework for the protection and preservation of the marine environment. However, the integration of climate change obligations into this framework marks a new chapter in international environmental law.

The global climate crisis has had devastating impacts on marine ecosystems, which serve as the world’s largest carbon sink, providing essential resources such as food, livelihoods, and half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events have particularly affected small island nations, which have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions but face some of the worst consequences.

The ITLOS advisory opinion unequivocally states that greenhouse gas emissions are a form of marine pollution. Countries are now legally obligated to implement measures to mitigate climate change, regulate business activities contributing to emissions, and enhance the adaptive capacity of marine ecosystems. Failure to meet these obligations could result in legal liability for the states involved.

This ruling goes beyond the commitments made under the Paris Agreement, emphasizing the need for stringent due diligence and a precautionary approach in combating climate change. ITLOS has made it clear that protecting the marine environment from climate change impacts requires urgent and comprehensive action.

The advisory opinion was a response to questions submitted by the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), which includes Antigua and Barbuda, Tuvalu, and other small island states. These nations have been at the forefront of climate advocacy, highlighting the existential threat posed by climate change.

Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, welcomed the ITLOS decision, stating, “Small island states are fighting for their survival. Some will become uninhabitable soon because of the failure to mitigate greenhouse emissions.” Eselealofa Apinelu, Tuvalu’s high commissioner to Fiji, added that the opinion “spells out the legally binding obligations of all states to protect the marine environment against the existential threats posed by climate change.”

Environmental organizations have hailed the ITLOS ruling as a historic victory for ocean and climate protection. Louise Fournier, Legal Counsel for Climate Justice and Liability at Greenpeace International, remarked, “The ITLOS advisory opinion marks a significant step forward in international environmental law and the protection of our oceans. It sets a clear legal precedent for addressing climate change through existing international frameworks and reinforces states’ responsibilities to act on climate change.”

Laura Meller, Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign lead, emphasized the importance of marine biodiversity, stating, “Protecting our oceans is protecting our future. Marine biodiversity is the heartbeat of our blue planet, supporting ecosystems that sustain communities and economies. Today’s groundbreaking ITLOS advisory opinion on climate change should serve as a call to action for states to bring climate-warming emissions to zero.”

The ITLOS ruling aligns with other significant decisions by international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which have also addressed climate change obligations. The forthcoming advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is expected to further clarify states’ responsibilities under international law.

This ruling could reshape global climate policies, prompting countries to adopt stricter measures to reduce emissions and protect marine environments. The legal precedent set by ITLOS emphasizes that compliance with the Paris Agreement alone is insufficient and that states must take additional actions to meet their international obligations.

Implementing the ITLOS obligations poses significant challenges, particularly for major carbon-emitting countries and industries. China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, argued against the tribunal’s authority to issue advisory opinions, highlighting potential resistance from major polluters.

Despite these challenges, the ITLOS ruling shows the urgency of global action. Policymakers, businesses, and individuals must work together to combat climate change and protect the environment. The road ahead may be difficult, but the ITLOS decision represents a critical milestone in the international community’s efforts to address climate change.

As Louise Fournier aptly stated, “Oceans are vital in the fight against the climate crisis and in maintaining all life on the planet.”

For more information on how to support climate action and marine protection initiatives, readers can visit the ITLOS and Greenpeace International websites. The final ruling is expected to have far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for future international environmental law.

Acknowledgments: This article was made possible through the contributions of various environmental organizations and legal experts who continue to advocate for climate justice and the protection of our oceans.

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