Nine small island states suffering the devastating impacts of climate change have appeared before the UN maritime court to seek a ruling that will say ocean-heating carbon emissions are pollution and therefore a violation of international law.
The case at the request of Pacific and Caribbean island nations is being heard by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany. It began on Monday and is expected to last for two weeks.
Arguments will revolve around the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that obliges countries to prevent pollution of the oceans and to protect the marine environment. It has been ratified by 168 nations.
The UN treaty defines pollution as the introduction by humans of “substances or energy into the marine environment” that harms marine life.
But it does not spell out carbon emissions as a specific pollutant, and the plaintiffs argue that these emissions should qualify.
“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 prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, told the court.
“The time has come to speak in terms of legally binding obligations rather than empty promises that go unfulfilled.”
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Ocean ecosystems create half the oxygen humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.
But increasing emissions can warm and acidify seawaters, harming marine life.
If the islands’ request is successful, the court’s decision could lead to wide-ranging claims for damages.