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Small Island States Secure Historic Win 

by Violet Dawson
0 comment

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said small island nations were “fighting for their survival”

An international ocean court has just delivered one of the most “historic” legal opinions for islands facing climate change. A case ruled in favor of nine small states to seek increased protection of the world’s oceans from being exploited by climate change. Many small islands including Antigua, Barbuda and the Bahamas, secured this win on May 21 combatting sea levels. 

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said small island nations were “fighting for their survival”.

Although 169 nations have ratified a convention from 1994 that gives nations the legal authority to safeguard the marine environment from pollutants, such as ship oil, the tribunal’s ruling recognizes that air emissions are also endangering ocean health.

The UN maritime court found that greenhouse gases constitute marine pollution leading to rising sea levels. The countries had an obligation to take measures to mitigate effects on oceans. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in their first climate change related judgement said that the emission from fossil fuel  and other planet-warming gases that are absorbed by the oceans count as marine pollution. The opinion can help guide countries in their climate policy but is not legally binded. 

“Anthropogenic GHG emissions into the atmosphere constitute pollution of the marine environment” under the international UNCLOS treaty, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ruled in an expert opinion. Polluting countries have specific obligations to take all necessary measures to protect the environment. They take control of emissions under their jurisdiction and ensure that no damage is caused to other states and their environment. This implies that the legal obligation for states to protect and preserve the marine environment under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also applies to the main drivers of the climate crisis.

The Tribunal’s ruling outlines the obligations that nations have with regard to climate change under international maritime law. It was requested that it think about three queries: Are emissions of greenhouse gases considered marine pollution? What responsibilities does a State have to stop and lessen that pollution? and what responsibilities do they have to safeguard the oceans from the effects of climate change?

The UNCLOS treaty brings together countries to prevent pollution in the oceans. As per the council, pollution is defined as any substance or energy causing harm to marine life. Although it does not specifically list carbon as a pollutant, which was argued by the plaintiffs to be included. 

The court said that the states are legally obligated to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius and above pre-industrial levels.

The world’s biggest carbon polluter, China had argued in the court that the Tribunal did not own authority to issue advisory opinions, saying these could fragment international law

Small island nations with their limited economic power are vulnerable and exposed to climate change which has been largely neglected. The pledges to cut carbon emissions have fallen far short for limiting the worst effects of global warming. 

The decision could influence two emerging legal opinions by the Inter-American Court on human rights and the International Court of Justice, which are considering the obligations of the state. The European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs who claimed that Switzerland was not doing what was required to combat climate change. 

The ocean’s ecosystem creates half the oxygen that humans breathe. It further limits and diminishes global warming to an extent by absorbing carbon dioxide emitted by human beings and their activities. However, the rising emissions can warm and acidify seawater, causing harm to marine life and ecosystem. The small island countries face an existential threat due to the rising sea temperatures that accelerates the melting of the polar ice and an increase in the sea levels. 

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