Small islands bring ocean protection case to the United Nations court

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A group of small island states is bringing a landmark case to the UN maritime court, seeking protection for the world’s oceans from climate change. The nine island states have turned to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to determine if carbon dioxide emissions absorbed by the oceans can be considered pollution and what obligations countries have to prevent it. The plaintiffs argue that increasing emissions can warm and acidify seawaters, harming marine life. They have pointed to the international treaty UNCLOS, which binds countries to preventing pollution of the oceans, but does not specifically define carbon emissions as a pollutant.

The push for climate justice received a boost when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in March calling on the International Court of Justice to lay out nations’ obligations on protecting the climate and the legal consequences they face if they fail to do so. Small islands like Vanuatu, one of the plaintiffs in the case, are particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming, with rising sea levels threatening to submerge entire countries. The case is being heard in Hamburg, Germany, and will involve 34 other state parties.

According to the annual State of the Climate report, nearly 60% of ocean surface waters experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2022, 50% more than pre-industrial levels. The world’s oceans also set a new temperature record in August. The plaintiffs argue that urgent action is needed to prevent further harm to marine and coastal ecosystems caused by climate change.

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