WWF to make submission to International Court of Justice which is set to provide a decision on the responsibilities of countries regarding climate change

Posted on March, 25 2024

An advisory opinion on the responsibilities of countries regarding climate change will be made by the International Court of Justice. While the opinion will be non-binding, it could have far-reaching implications for national decisions and for future claims for loss and damage.
Vanuatu, an idyllic island paradise in the Pacific, is heaven to tourists, but, increasingly, not the same to the residents as the climate crisis ravages island life and livelihoods.
The island nation is responsible for less than 1% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, but suffers from disproportionate impacts of rising emissions caused mainly by wealthy, big emitting countries.  
Coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are the most obvious impacts. But the loss of livelihoods and contamination of valuable freshwater by seawater leading to loss of crops - and food insecurity - are part of the daily battle island communities face.
So it is not surprising that Vanuatu has been at the forefront of championing ambitious climate action in global fora. But negotiations on climate change only work if everyone does their part. That’s because what happens in China, doesn’t stay in China, and what happens in the U.S. may well be felt thousands of miles away - like in Vanuatu - most harshly. 
So when legal students from Vanuatu were looking for options, they decided to follow the global legal route. Vanuatu and 18 other champion nations embraced the students' campaign and led a coalition of 132 nations in March 2023 to get the UN General Assembly to adopt a historic resolution for an advisory option from ICJ. In essence, they are asking for an advisory opinion on state’s responsibilities to others as regards climate change. 
An advisory opinion by the ICJ, while non-binding, could have far-reaching implications for national decisions and for future claims for loss and damage. It also brings into sharp relief the underlying fact that scientists have long warned us about: the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – is the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions which causes global warming. Without drastically reducing global greenhouse gas emissions – at least 43% by 2030 (compared to 2019 baseline), 60% by 2035 and be net-zero by mid-century, the world will not be able to keep global warming to 1.5℃ - we will not be able to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
WWF strongly supports, and has long advocated for, ambitious climate action by all countries. In this regard, WWF made an amicus submission to the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in the context of a similar request for an advisory opinion brought to the Court by the Commission of Small Island States in 2023. The ITLOS case is aimed at defining the climate-related obligations of states under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In its submission to the Tribunal, WWF argued these obligations include rapidly reducing emissions while conserving and restoring the marine environment. 
WWF will now also make its own submission to the ICJ, responding to the questions posted in the request for an advisory opinion, drawing on its expertise regarding climate change and linkages to nature and biodiversity. We intend to highlight existing states’ obligations to protect nature and biodiversity as key for climate change mitigation and adaptation. We will outline how greenhouse gas emissions and other observable climate change effects already bring severe harm to nature and people, thereby violating existing international environmental law. And finally, we will also recall the role which nature can also play in helping to tackle climate change.
On Friday 22nd March, countries provided submissions outlining their views of 1) what the obligations for countries under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system are, and 2) what should be the legal consequences under such obligations. Those submissions should form the basis for the judges to issue their Advisory Opinion.
The International Court of Justice is the highest legal body in the UN System. The fact that they agreed to look into climate change and shed light over States' responsibilities is already a victory for those who have long been suffering and campaigned  against the harmful impacts it poses to the most vulnerable. 
This is a unique chance for countries to express their views and make them count in this process. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the fight against one of the biggest existential threats of our times. No country will be immune from the impacts of climate change, and so it is imperative they all engage in this process. We will need everyone, doing everything if we are to overcome the climate crisis, and this ICJ decision could be the fork in the road that leads us to a different future.
Below are the two questions which the ICJ has to consider:
  • What are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations.
  • What are the legal consequences under these obligations for States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to: (a) States, including, in particular, small island developing States, which due to their geographical circumstances and level of development, are injured or specially affected by or are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change? (b) Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change?
Assuming no delays with the first submissions made by countries, they will have an opportunity on 24 June to respond to all the submissions made. The ICJ is planning on holding oral proceedings in The Hague, Netherlands in November or December this year. It is possible for a final decision to be handed down as soon as early 2025. 
For further information or interviews, contact:
Robin Harvey rharvey@wwfint.org, or news@wwfint.org 
Mandy Jean Woods mwoods@wwfint.org  
The International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands, will provide an advisory opinion on the responsibilities of countries with regard to climate change. A decision is expected by end of 2024, or early 2025/
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