Environmental policiesPolicy and AffairsPollution

Greenhouse gas emissions “pollute the marine environment”: Itlos ruling

First time the International Forum to discussed greenhouse gas emissions

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a form of marine environment pollution”. This was established by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ICTY), an independent body of the United Nations, in an advisory opinion issued on 21 May. Although it is not binding, that is, it does not legally oblige any country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, this decision is a case law. And it can be used in all the upcoming climate disputes at any level to force governments to improve their policies against the climate crisis.

This is the first time that the International Panel has given its opinion on a topic related to the climate crisis. The court’s reference area is the Unclos, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea signed in Montego Bay in 1982, which regulates, among other aspects, the protection of the marine environment and the management of its natural resources. With the opinion issued today – at the request of a patrol of small island states, particularly threatened by climate change – this perimeter is widening to include a theme, greenhouse gas emissions, not yet connected with marine pollution.

The increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, driven mainly by human activities (on all the combustion of fossil sources) has a well-known impact on the oceans. The ocean masses absorb excess CO2 – acting as a “buffer” on the warming of the atmosphere – but in doing so they increase their acidity. This has consequences for marine life and the balance of ecosystems.

What Itlos said about greenhouse gas emissions

According to Itlos, the Unclos signatories (most countries, with the notable exception of the United States) have a “specific obligation” to adopt “all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions” and shall harmonise their policies in this area. To do so, countries must rely on the most up-to-date climate science, including the Paris Agreement and “in particular” the goal of limiting the global temperature to +1.5°C and the “timing” needed to meet it.

It is a “significant step forward” that sets a “clear legal precedent” for addressing the climate crisis, comments Louise Fournier of Greenpeace. On the same wavelength, WWF speaks of “important milestone” and “strong signal” that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the marine environment must be priorities for governments. WWF will include the Itlos opinion in the request it will make to the International Court of Justice to determine the responsibilities of states about climate change.

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