Press release

Media reaction: international tribunal issues landmark opinion on ocean protection and climate change

21 May 2024

Today the world’s highest court for marine protection - the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) - issued an unprecedented advisory opinion on what states must do to safeguard our ocean from the impacts of climate change.

The tribunal unanimously found for the first time that:

  • States have an obligation to reduce their emissions to protect our ocean.
  • Climate action may need to go beyond the international climate treaty – the Paris Agreement – for countries to meet their legal obligations on marine protection.
  • States with the greatest historic responsibility for the climate crisis must step up and do more to address pollution from greenhouse gas emissions than states with smaller footprints.

In reaction to today’s landmark opinion, ClientEarth lawyer Lea Main-Klingst said:

“Today, small island states facing some of the greatest challenges of climate change have succeeded in a world first.

“They brought a novel legal question to this international Tribunal, which has made it clear that states worldwide must reduce their emissions to protect our ocean.

“Next year, states must improve the climate plans they submit to the United Nations - known as their Nationally Determined Contributions - and today’s outcome will be instrumental to push the countries most responsible for the climate crisis to ramp up their ambition.

“And because business must follow where governments lead, companies and financial institutions are going to feel a knock-on effect from this development, too – no matter where they operate.

“The momentum from today is only set to grow, as 2024 is a year of serious legal reckoning on climate change in international courts.

“The Inter-American Court is hearing arguments on how climate change is impacting human rights this month in Brazil and the world’s highest court – the International Court of Justice – will be considering a similar question later this year.”

“None of this would have been possible without the Commission of Small Island States on International Law and Climate Change (COSIS) – and we are incredibly grateful to them for putting this question before the court.”


Notes to editors:
  • The full advisory opinion issued today by ITLOS is available here 
  • COSIS' release on this decision is available here 
  • The ocean absorbs over 90% of our emissions and is the biggest carbon sink on the planet – making its health critical in the fight to curb climate change. More information on the role it plays is available here.
About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.