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Small island states lead the world in historic climate justice case to protect oceans

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A landmark international climate justice case will begin hearings in Hamburg today (11 September), as small island nations seek to clarify the obligations of States to prevent the catastrophic damage caused to our oceans by carbon emissions.

The case has been referred to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) by The Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), asking the court to determine whether CO2 emissions absorbed by the ocean should be considered pollution, and if so, what obligations countries have to avoid such pollution and protect the marine environment.

The ocean generates 50% of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures 90% of the excess heat generated by these emissions. Excessive carbon pollution CO2 causes harmful chemical reactions such as coral bleaching, acidification and deoxygenation, and jeopardises the ocean’s ongoing ability to absorb carbon dioxide and safeguard life on the planet.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), most countries are required to take measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment. If the case is successful, these obligations would include the reduction of carbon emissions and protection of marine environments already damaged by CO2 pollution. 

As sea levels rise, some islands - including Tuvalu and Vanuatu - face becoming completely submerged by the end of the Century. It is estimated half of Tuvalu’s capital will be flooded by 2050.
Right Hon. Gaston Alfonso Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said: Despite our negligible emission of greenhouse gases, COSIS’s members have suffered and continue to suffer the overwhelming burden of climate change’s adverse impacts.

"Without rapid and ambitious action, climate change may prevent my children and grandchildren from living on the island of their ancestors, the island that we call home. We cannot remain silent in the face of such injustice.

“We have come before this Tribunal in the belief that international law must play a central role in addressing the catastrophe that we witness unfolding before our eyes.”

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The Hon. Kausea Natano, prime minister of Tuvalu, said: “Sea levels are rising rapidly, threatening to sink our lands below the ocean. Extreme weather events, which grow in number and intensity with each passing year, are killing our people and destroying our infrastructure. Entire marine and coastal ecosystems are dying in waters that are becoming warmer and more acidic.

"The science is clear and undisputed: these impacts are the result of climate change brought on by greenhouse gas emissions.

“We come here seeking urgent help, in the strong belief that international law is an essential mechanism for correcting the manifest injustice that our people are suffering as a result of climate change. We are confident that international courts and tribunals will not allow this injustice to continue unchecked.”

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