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Vanuatu brings climate justice to highest world court and research brings insights to accountability

tropical trees surround a lake of blue water
An image of the Blue Lagoon in Vanuatu / Creative Commons

In the middle of the Coral Sea between Fiji and the Soloman Islands sits a string of 80 islands making up the country of Vanuatu, which despite being completely carbon negative, is one of most at-risk countries on the planet according to the United Nations.

Between March 1 and 3, 2023 alone, the archipelago experienced two destructive Category 4 tropical cyclones, Judy and Kevin, and a 6.5-magnitude earthquake that impacted over 80% of the over 325,000 population. The country sits in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and endures frequent volcanic and seismic activity, and other threats due to rising sea levels and ocean acidification.

As the world’s warming level edges closer and closer to 1.5°C, Vanuatu’s natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency, and now, the island country has brought the need for climate justice to the highest court in the world: The International Court of Justice.

The resolution, signed on by countries within the United Nations, was led by Vanuatu, specifically Vanuatuan law students turned youth activists. Work on the resolution was led by Indigenous lawyers in the Pacific.

With 120 countries on board, the resolution will serve as a litmus test for global politics. As the Associated Press reports, on Wednesday, March 29, the countries adopted “a historic resolution calling for the U.N.’s highest court to strengthen countries’ obligations to curb warming and protect communities from climate disasters.”

“Today we have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau said. “Today’s historic resolution is the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate cooperation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making.”

The resolution itself is not legally binding, but it sets a paradigm for countries, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will give a legal opinion to clarify states’ obligations to tackle the climate crisis, specifying any consequences countries should face for inaction. For example, it will determine if countries are legally obligated to live up to promises they made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and if the court decides so, these failures can be challenged through litigation.

Later this year, that litigation may come to light at the U.N.’s 28th Conference of the Parties.

Held in Dubai in November, COP28 will be the stage where the results of the world’s first Global Stocktake (GST) will be revealed. The GST is a process set out in the Paris Agreement to assess national progress towards achieving the pact’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C. It takes stock of progress towards mitigation and adaptation, and the implementation of these ambitions for both the short term and long term, comparing the state of the world during COP26 to the present.

According to Joanna Post, Program Officer with U.N. Climate Change’s Intergovernmental Support and Collective Progress Division via the UNFCCC, “National governments are expected to use the outcomes of the global stocktake when developing and updating their climate plans. The ultimate aim of the global stocktake is to become a driver of climate ambition.”

Christopher Bartlett, climate diplomacy manager for the government of Vanuatu explained the Vanuatu resolution via AP. He said the ICJ can reference international legal instruments. These instruments have the force of the law for the countries that 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,” said Bartlett.

Published in the journal Scientific Data the same day as the U.N. passed its resolution, is a study from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the United Kingdom. The study shows how countries have contributed to global warming through their emissions of key greenhouse gases, going back as far as 1850.

According to Axios, the study is the first to show exactly how much temperature increases specific countries and groupings have caused and assign responsibility based on that number, rather than solely on countries’ emission totals.

On top of temperature increases, the study also includes agriculture and deforestation in its accounting, as many emissions, like that of Brazil and Argentina, are associated with these activities. The study also includes data for all three main global warming contributors: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).

With this data in hand, the researchers hope it will inform the Global Stocktake, which could potentially open new doors for legally-binding litigation the ICJ could recommend, or inform new resolutions passed at the November summit.

As an accountability tool, the ICJ’s advisory opinion is a chance for developing countries like Vanuatu and other African Caribbean and Pacific states to receive justice, as they have contributed the very least to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, while it already considers itself carbon-negative, Vanuatu has one of the most ambitious climate plans in the world for going 100% renewable by 2030.

Of the 120 countries that signed on to Vanuatu’s resolution, the UK was on the list, but not the US The resolution comes on the same day the Biden administration opened an auction to drill a massive stretch of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas. The site designated for the drilling is the size of Arizona.

This is the second time this month the government has approved major fossil fuel development on public lands, with the first being the $8 billion Willow Project that will release 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the next 30 years, or the equivalent of firing up 70 new coal plants and letting them burn for three decades.

Last September, Vanuatu became the first country to call for a global treaty to phase out fossil fuels, with the president, Nikenike Vurobaravu, calling on countries to join his attempt to include the crime of ecocide in the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court, which, unlike the ICJ, can intervene if a state doesn’t carry out its obligations. In this case, that obligation would be to the environment, and the people affected by its degradation.

Ultimately, this is the goal of the island country with the new resolution. According to Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s climate change minister via AP, “We are also clear-eyed that existing international frameworks have significant gaps.” He adds that the opinion of the ICJ could push for stronger legal measures like negotiating a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty or criminalizing “climate-destroying activities.”

Led by Dr. Matthew Jones, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the UEA, the study ranks countries that have contributed the most to global warming, incorporating insights from developments in recent decades. At the top of the list is the USA, contributing exactly 0.28°C of warming induced by all three greenhouse gases between 1850 and 2021.

This is 17.3% of the planet’s warming.

Closely behind is China, with 0.20°C and 12.3% worth of contributions, Russia with 0.10°C / 6.1%, Brazil with 0.08°C / 4.9%, India with 0.08°C / 4.8%, and Indonesia, Germany, UK, Japan, and Canada each tied with 0.03-0.05°C worth of warming contributions.

Of the world’s entire emissions, almost 70% is the result of CO2. The study breaks this down in terms of individual countries as well. In the UK for example, CO2 emissions account for much more — 87.6% — of the country’s national warming.

It also provides insight into interesting developments, like how in 1992 China overtook Russia as the world’s second-largest contributor to warming, rather than just the second-largest emitter. In the same year, Indonesia overtook Germany and the UK to become the sixth largest.

The team behind the new dataset includes scientists from the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Norway, PIK and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, the Woodwell Climate Research Center in the USA, and University of Exeter in the UK.

This study may help bolster the GST which is already expected to paint a grim picture of world progress. In November, the world will see if the GST does what delegates hope it will. Data like that provided by the study serves as further evidence for climate reparations like the Loss and Damage Fund passed at COP27.

According to Barlette via NPR, Vanuatu needs money from this fund, which they have been fighting for over the last 30 years. “This is huge sums of our national wealth that is being erased by climate extremes,” he said.

Its 2020 disaster, Cyclone Harold, left $600 million worth of damages, or 60% of the small country’s gross domestic product. According to the Vanuatuan ICJ initiative, $177 million is a starting point for climate compensation. However, that’s a drop in the hurricane of the $1.1 billion the island nation faces in climate damages a year. In moderate climate scenarios, this will increase to $1.3 billion in the future and in worst-case scenarios, it will be $1.4 billion.

“Countries have made commitments to reduce their emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O with the goal of avoiding the most detrimental impacts of climate change, including from drought, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise,” Dr. Jones of the UEA study said.

“This new dataset will prove a critical tool for tracking the effect of changing national emissions on warming, for example as a result of climate policies implemented since the Paris Agreement. During the coming years, we hope to see the warming contributions by all countries level off, with no new additions to warming year-on-year, as commitments to reach net-zero emissions are met or surpassed.”


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