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International Court: States have legal duty to prevent greenhouse gas pollution of the Ocean and to restore and protect marine habitats

In a landmark and historic ruling, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has issued a long-awaited advisory opinion on the responsibility of states to tackle climate change. The judges of the Hamburg-based court ruled unequivocally that under international law, carbon – and other greenhouse gas – emissions absorbed by the Ocean must be considered marine pollution, and that nations have an obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment. The ruling was sought by a group of small island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising sea-levels caused by climate change.

Commenting on the ruling

“OceanCare welcomes this strong, landmark advisory opinion, which clarifies that our persistent calls for governments to make every effort to protect marine ecosystems are fundamentally supported by international law. The Tribunal’s position was both unanimous and unequivocal – anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions constitute marine pollution under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As a result, states have an obligation to take all necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control those emissions that cause climate change and hence the warming and acidification of the oceans.

“Crucially, preventing and reducing pollution of the marine environment by greenhouse gases must follow the precautionary approach, meaning that no further oil or gas exploration and extraction should take place, which is one of OceanCare’s top priorities.

“The tribunal also included pollution from vessels in its judgment, emphasizing that flag states have an obligation to enforce and take additional necessary measures to avoid pollution of the marine environment by emissions from ships. This affirms the stance taken by OceanCare that ships should slow down, which has numerous benefits, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the risk of collisions with endangered marine wildlife and reducing underwater noise pollution.

“OceanCare also supports the position that environmental impact assessments are a vital obligation and an essential part of proper management of the marine environment. They apply to both private and government actors and must be carried out prior to any operation that could potentially pollute the marine environment. This, therefore, encompasses any expansion of fossil fuels, and must consider the cumulative impact of any such developments.

“Finally, the Tribunal highlighted the obligation of states to restore ecosystems as part of their UNCLOS commitments to preserve the marine environment. Such restoration must be based on the best available science and centred upon the ecosystem itself. OceanCare would like to see greater ambition from the international community in this regard, but notes that, as always, prevention is better than cure.”

The advisory opinion itself is not a legally binding instrument. However, by interpreting existing international law, it serves as a clear directive to governments around the world and might form a basis for future litigation – meaning, for example, that states already facing major risks could sue other countries for inaction on climate change.
Source: OceanCare

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