As government officials gather this week in Tianjin, China for negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), one group from the United Kingdom is urging developing countries to seek legal action against the world's developed nations for their supposed role in global warming.
“A large part of the relevant legal literature suggests that the main polluting nations can be held responsible under international law for the harmful effects of their greenhouse-gas emissions,” says attorney Christoph Schwarte of the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD), a UK-based environmental law group.
“As a result affected countries may have a substantive right to demand the cessation of a certain amount of emissions. In selected cases they also have the procedural means to pursue an inter-state litigation in an international judicial forum such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague.”
In a new paper published in time for the UNFCCC meeting, FIELD outlines a proposed legal argument for a lawsuit on behalf of the world's developing countries, offering some observations on the potential for a hypothetical case brought before an international court or tribunal.
“Today, a credible case for inter-state litigation on climate change can be made,” says Schwarte. “Developing country governments are understandably reluctant to challenge any of the big donor nations in an international court or tribunal. But this may change once the impacts of climate change become even more visible and an adequate agreement remains wanting,” he says.
While UN negotiations over climate change remedies have stalled, FIELD says that a threat of litigation "may help to create the political pressure and third-party guidance" environmental activists need to re-start international negotiations.