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'A win for climate justice of epic proportions': UN vote could push countries to take climate action

Sea ice near the Ilulissat Icefjord by Disko Bay on the western coast of Greenland, May 2022.
Sea ice near the Ilulissat Icefjord by Disko Bay on the western coast of Greenland, May 2022. Copyright AFPTV
Copyright AFPTV
By Daniel Bellamy with AP, AFP
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The ICJ will clarify what countries must do about climate change and the legal consequences they'll face if they don’t.

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United Nations member states have adopted a historic resolution on climate justice. 

It aims to hold highly polluting countries legally responsible for failing to address the climate crisis.

More than 130 UN member states voted for the resolution at the General Assembly in New York on Wednesday.

It calls on the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, to clarify states' obligations to tackle the climate emergency.

'A win for climate justice of epic proportions'

The resolution, which has been years in the making, was proposed by Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific island state that is highly vulnerable to extreme weather and sea level rise. 

"For some countries, climate threats are a death sentence," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech to the General Assembly. "Indeed, it is the initiative of those countries, joined by so many others - along with the efforts of young people all over the world - that brings us together. And together, you are making history." 

A week ago, UN climate experts warned that global warming will increase by one and a half degrees by 2030 to 2035.

The 2015 Paris Agreement - which is legally binding - set the long term goal to keep warming to two degrees at the most by the end of this century.

Nations like Vanuatu are already experiencing the effects.

While hailing the UN resolution “a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” Vanuatu'sPrime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau reeled off a string of recent disasters. 

These included back-to-back Category 4 cyclones in his own country and record-breaking Cyclone Freddy that devastated southeastern Africa in recent weeks. 

“Catastrophic and compound effects like this are growing in number,” he said.

Guterres said he hoped the opinion, when issued, would encourage nations “to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs."

Protecting the planet for future generations

Youth groups bolstered the effort, citing the need to protect the planet for current and future generations.

“I don’t want to show a picture to my child one day of my island. I want my child to be able to experience the same environment and the same culture that I grew up in,” said Cynthia Houniuhi of the Solomon Islands. She is president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, a group involved in getting the resolution to the General Assembly. “The environment that sustains us is disintegrating before our eyes,” she added.

The group's Solomon Yeo said “young people across the world will recall the day when we were able to get the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, to bring its voice to the climate justice fight."

'An important advance in climate law'

A lawyer for ClientEarth, an organisation which works to legally boost the fight against global warming, gave her reaction to the resolution.

“International courts and tribunals are increasingly being asked to clarify and define the law around global efforts to fight the climate crisis - and for good reason," says Lea Main-Klingst.

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“International law is an important tool for shaping the fight against climate change - and as yet, we’ve not seen its full power," she continues.

"Advisory opinions such as this have the potential to clarify the legal obligations of states on one of the most pressing issues of our time - and can guide future climate action. This is an important advance in the climate law scape.”

While the opinion from the International Court of Justice would not be binding, it has other power it can bring to bear, explains Christopher Bartlett, climate diplomacy manager for the government of Vanuatu. 

The court can reference other international legal instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and those do have the force of law for the countries that have ratified them.

“The International Court of Justice is the only legal authority that has a mandate to look at all of international law. While the advisory opinion itself is not binding, the laws upon which the advisory opinion will be speaking absolutely are legally binding and immediately applicable to states," says Bartlett.

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He says that some of the questions the ICJ will ask are: What harm to the climate has been done? Should states be forced to take certain actions? And is financial support a legal consequence of causing harm?

The resolution now goes to the court.

Watch the video above to see the moment the resolution was passed at the United Nations in New York.

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