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May 21, 2024, 2:21pm EDT
Oceania
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Semafor Signals

United Nations court delivers rare climate win to small island states

Insights from Council on Foreign Relations, Voice of America, The Guardian

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Legal representatives of the nine island nations pose after ruling
REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer
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The News

Carbon emissions are a form of maritime pollution, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a United Nations maritime court in Germany, ruled on Tuesday. In turn, countries are legally required to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

The court also recommended revising emissions targets down further, based upon the best available science.

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It’s a win for a coalition of nine small island states across the Caribbean and Pacific, which had sought increased protection from rising sea levels. Island nations — particularly in the tropics — are among the most vulnerable to climate disasters.

The judgment is not legally binding, but it could set a precedent for decisions for future climate litigation. 

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Island nations disproportionately feel climate change’s impact

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Sources:  
Council on Foreign Relations, The Guardian, United Nations

Despite contributing less than 0.02% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Pacific island nations are on the “frontline of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” according to the UN. Pacific and Caribbean island economies depend on ecotourism and overseas trade — unique circumstances that increase their vulnerability to climate change, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. Their geography also means natural disasters can hurt domestic food production, increasing the risk of malnutrition as the climate warms. “The Caribbean islands are essentially a microcosm of the challenges we’re all facing,” said the director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute.

The decision makes polluters accountable, but action isn’t guaranteed

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Sources:  
Associated Press, Reuters, Voice of America

Island advocates said the decision could put “an end to the inaction that has brought us to the brink of an irreversible disaster,” but getting the world’s biggest polluters to do more will be difficult. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, argued the Tribunal doesn’t have the authority to issue advisory opinions and argued the decision could even hurt climate law going forward. Meanwhile, the second largest emitter, the United States, refused to sign on to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; treaty skeptics said part of the reason is a fear of “meritless environmental lawsuits,” Voice of America reported.

Decision solidifies ties between human rights and climate change

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Sources:  
Greenpeace, Semafor, Reuters

The tribunal’s decision “marks a significant step forward in international environmental law and the protection of our oceans” and “sets a clear legal precedent for addressing climate change through existing international frameworks,” said Greenpeace’s legal advisor Louise Fournier. The small islands’ win follows another landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in March that found that Europe’s member states have a legal obligation to protect citizens from climate change. The cases could influence two pending advisory opinions on states’ climate obligations in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the International Court of Justice, Reuters reported.

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