A group of nine small island nations went before an international tribunal on Monday to plead for protection from climate change.
They are requesting that carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans be regarded as pollution, which would trigger anti-pollution measures already agreed upon by countries.
The islands argue that this could help to prevent them from being submerged.
The leaders of these small island states have turned to the UN maritime court to seek protection for the world’s oceans from catastrophic climate change that threatens their countries’ very existence.
The group is requesting that the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ascertain if carbon dioxide emissions absorbed by the oceans can be considered pollution and, if so, what obligations countries have to take to prevent it.
Speaking at the court in Hamburg, Germany, Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda said, “This is the opening chapter in the struggle to change the conduct of the international community by clarifying the obligation of states to protect the marine environment.
The time has come to speak in terms of legally binding obligations rather than empty promises that go unfulfilled.”
Ocean ecosystems produce half of the oxygen humans breathe and help limit global warming by absorbing a significant amount of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.
However, increasing emissions can cause seawater to warm and acidify, thereby harming marine life.
The case centers around the international treaty UNCLOS that binds countries to preventing pollution of the oceans.
Although the UN treaty defines pollution as the introduction of “substances or energy into the marine environment” by humans that leads to harm to marine life, it does not specifically mention carbon emissions as a pollutant. The plaintiffs argue that these emissions qualify.
The push for climate justice gained momentum when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in March calling on the International Court of Justice to specify nations’ obligations for protecting Earth’s climate and the legal consequences they face if they fail to do so.
The ICJ’s advice is still pending, but the action has opened up a new way to bind countries to commitments to reduce emissions.
Vanuatu led the move at the UN, and the islands that brought the case before the ITLOS include small nations like Vanuatu that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, with rising seawater levels threatening to submerge their entire countries.
Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano told the court, “Just a few years – this is all we have before the ocean consumes everything my people built across centuries.
If international law has nothing to say about an entire country going underwater… then what purpose does it serve?” He pleaded with the court for a clear direction.
Nearly 60 percent of ocean surface waters across two-thirds of the planet covered by seas experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2022, according to the annual State of the Climate report led by scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This is 50 percent more than pre-industrial levels and “the highest in the modern atmospheric record and in paleoclimate records dating back as far as 800,000 years”, the report published this month noted.
In August, the world’s oceans set a new temperature record. Average sea surface temperatures reached an unprecedented 21 degrees Celsius for over a week, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, after months of unusually high temperatures.
Other island states joining the ITLOS case include The Bahamas, Niue, Palau, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, as well as St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Thirty-four other state parties will also participate in the court hearing, with sessions scheduled through to September 25.