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CO2 is declared an ocean pollutant by international court

The ocean, our planet’s vast blue heart, has been sending out CO2 alert signals for years. Rising sea levels, acidification, and coral bleaching are just a few of the symptoms of an ocean under immense distress.

Now, in a landmark decision, an international court has confirmed what many scientists and activists have long suspected: carbon dioxide (CO2), the notorious greenhouse gas, is officially a pollutant of the sea.

CO2 pollution in ocean

Imagine a courtroom where the plaintiff isn’t an individual, but the entire ocean itself. Nine small island nations, facing the devastating effects of rising sea levels, took their case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Their argument? The CO2 emissions from industrialized countries, absorbed by the oceans, constitute marine pollution. This landmark case saw these nations fighting for their survival, arguing that the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change are also polluting the marine environment.

The court, in its first-ever climate-related judgment, agreed. This ruling sends a powerful message: the ocean is not a limitless dumping ground for our carbon waste.

“Anthropogenic GHG emissions into the atmosphere constitute pollution of the marine environment,” the court declared, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Ocean health

Ocean’s health affects us all. It provides half the oxygen we breathe, playing a crucial role in maintaining the balance of our atmosphere. Additionally, the ocean regulates our climate by absorbing significant amounts of CO2 and heat.

It supports a vast web of life, from microscopic plankton to the largest whales, forming the basis of the food chain that feeds billions of people.

The degradation of our oceans threatens biodiversity, food security, and the stability of our climate, impacting everyone.

This ruling could have a ripple effect, influencing future climate litigation and potentially holding polluting countries accountable for the damage their emissions cause to the marine environment.

“Some [island nations] will become uninhabitable in the near future because of the failure to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. We demand that the major polluters respect international law and stop the catastrophic harm against us before it is too late,” notes Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda.

Science behind the ruling

While this ruling might seem like a sudden wake-up call, the science behind it has been building for decades. Scientists have long known that the ocean absorbs about a quarter of the CO2 we release into the atmosphere.

At first glance, this might seem beneficial, as it reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. However, it comes at a steep price.

When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid in a process called ocean acidification. This increases the acidity of the water, disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. It’s like a slow-burning chemical reaction that threatens the very foundation of ocean life.

CO2 impact on ocean ecosystems

The effects of this acidification are already being felt around the world. Coral reefs, vibrant underwater cities that support a quarter of all marine species, are particularly vulnerable.

Acidic water makes it difficult for corals to build their skeletons, leading to widespread bleaching and death.

Rising sea levels, another consequence of climate change, are threatening coastal communities and ecosystems. Low-lying islands, like those that brought this case to court, are facing an existential crisis.

Their land is slowly being swallowed by the sea, a direct result of the greenhouse gases we’ve pumped into the atmosphere.

Glimmer of hope

While the situation is dire, this court ruling offers a glimmer of hope. It’s a recognition that we can’t ignore the ocean’s plight any longer.

“For the first time, an international court has recognized that the fates of two global commons — the oceans and the atmosphere — are intertwined and imperiled by the climate crisis,” said Joie Chowdhury, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law.

This ruling could be a catalyst for change, pushing governments and industries to take more aggressive action to reduce emissions.

It’s a reminder that we’re all connected to the ocean, whether we live by the coast or not. The ocean’s health is our health, and it’s time we started treating it with the respect it deserves.


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