COP26: Major polluting countries face legal action from small island states over rising sea levels – Simona Marinescu

Shortly before world leaders convened in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council adopted a groundbreaking resolution to recognise “access to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a fundamental right”.

The resolution encourages states to adopt policies and partner with civil society and businesses to protect the environment as a public good.

The council’s bold move was received with much hope by environmental and human rights activists worldwide.

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The Scotia Group, a global network of prominent internationalists which I am a proud member of, has similarly called for a new social contract to integrate the right to a healthy environment.

While this sounds promising, its enforcement requires a strong commitment to decarbonisation by all governments; its completion by the middle of this century is critical for many of the small island states I work with as a UN coordinator in Samoa.

Among the 43 UN member states that adopted this important resolution, two are ‘small island developing states’ (known as “SIDS”), Cuba and Marshall Islands.

Other island states who signed included Kiribati, the Maldives and Tuvalu. Should progress towards net-zero by mid-century fail, large parts of these countries will no longer exist.

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Antigua and Barbuda (above) has signed an accord with Tuvalu seeking justice before international courts for climate-induced damage (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the case of small island states, guaranteeing access to a safe and healthy environment cannot be the responsibility of national governments alone. Responsible for less than one per cent of global emissions, small island states are not accountable for the harm that climate change inflicts on their people and economies.

Countries like Kiribati and Samoa will never be able to stop the loss of biodiversity and the increasing human insecurity on their own if global warming caused by the big emitters continues unabated.

To recover from the devastating economic impact of Covid-19, last week the 58 members of the Alliance of Small Island States made some key asks of the G20 nations.

They asked for easier access to development finance as well as being given the chance to defer some of the huge debt payments which are currently hampering their chances of making a domestic economic recovery.

Sadly, these requests appear to have been ignored, and the G20 came out with no specific solutions to help small island states out of their current dire predicament.

As Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli said recently in this newspaper, decarbonising the planet is “the most radical economic transformation we have made in peacetime”.

While this week’s UN Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero is great news, SIDS will not qualify for access to such resources under the current rules.

Unwilling to wait anymore, in the last few days Antigua and Barbuda, and Tuvalu have signed an accord seeking justice before international courts for climate-induced damage.

Other states are expected to join the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law to request assistance from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the legal responsibilities of major polluting states for carbon emissions, marine pollution, and rising sea levels.

Climate-forced displacement is not an adaptation measure, but rather a profoundly distressing reality for the 65 million people living on Small Island Developing States.

Only a firm, binding consensus in Glasgow over how we can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 can help avert a climate tragedy for them.

Simona Marinescu is UN resident coordinator for Samoa and a member of the Scotia Group

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