In the wake of a landmark United Nations General Assembly Resolution, the International Court of Justice has initiated the process of delivering an advisory opinion on the obligations of states under international law to address the multifaceted impacts of climate change. Amid a heated debate on the environmental obligations of states, the UNGA Resolution is the third recent request for a legal opinion before international judicial bodies, albeit the first to be submitted to the Court. In this vein, the Small Island States Commission on Climate Change and International Law requested an advisory opinion from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea on the obligations of states to protect and conserve the marine environment in December 2022. S More specifically, the Commission decided to refer the following legal questions to the Tribunal for an advisory opinion: What are the specific obligations of State Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), including under Part XII: (a) to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment in relation to the deleterious effects that result or are likely to result from climate change, including through ocean warming and sea level rise, and ocean acidification, which are caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere? (b) to protect and preserve the marine environment in relation to climate change impacts, including ocean warming and sea level rise, and ocean acidification?  Subsequently, in a joint request submitted in January 2023, Chile and Colombia asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to clarify the scope of states’ obligations to address climate change and international law.
UN General Assembly Resolution 77/276 of 29 March 2023 entitled “Request for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States with regard to climate change”  was sponsored by the small island developing state of Vanuatu – a country that, although it has contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, is under existential threat due to continued sea level rise.
In its Preambular paragraphs, the request for an advisory opinion acknowledges that “climate change is an unprecedented challenge of civilizational proportions and that the well-being of present and future generations of humankind depends on our immediate and urgent response to it”. It also takes note of the scientific consensus expressed, inter alia, in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In particular, the UNGA underscores that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are “the dominant cause of the global warming observed since the mid-20th century” and that human-induced climate change “has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.”
In this context, the UNGA recalls the importance of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement “as expressions of the determination to address decisively the threat posed by climate change”. The resolution also underscores the importance of implementing these treaties, particularly in light of the significant gap between States’ current nationally determined contributions and the emission reductions required to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, as well as the gap between current levels of adaptation and the levels needed to respond to the adverse effects of climate change.
Therefore, in accordance with Article 96 of the Charter of the United Nations, the UNGA requested the ICJ to render an advisory opinion on the following questions:
“Having particular regard to the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the duty of due diligence, the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of prevention of significant harm to the environment and the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment
(a) What are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations?
(b) What are the legal consequences under these obligations for States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to:
(i) States, including, in particular, small island developing States, which due to their geographical circumstances and level of development, are injured or specially affected by or are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change?
(ii) Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change?”
Aiming to accelerate energy transition and climate justice to develop an effective sustainability order, the international community called on the ICJ not only to define the obligations of states under international rules to ensure climate sustainability in the long term, but also to shed light on the legal consequences that arise when governments fail to comply with their climate commitments. In particular, the Court was asked to clarify the responsibility of states for causing significant harm both to small island developing states, such as Vanuatu, and to present and future generations, in accordance with the principles of intra- and inter-generational justice.
The resolution was adopted by consensus and managed to gain the overwhelming support of 132 co-sponsored states, despite the fact that key climate actors expressed reservations about the final draft. For example, the representative of the United States observed that tackling the climate crisis is best achieved through diplomatic rather than judicial processes. China, meanwhile, remarked that the operative paragraphs of the resolution did not reflect the principles of international law of equity, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as outlined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. According to China’s approach, rather than interfering in the global climate governance process, the Court should ensure the implementation of the above-mentioned principles.
From a procedural point of view, the request for an opinion was transmitted to the Court by letter of the United Nations Secretary-General on 12 April 2023 and received by the ICJ Secretariat on 17 April. Following the transmission of the request, the Registrar of the ICJ informed all States and organisations entitled to be present before the Court, giving them the opportunity to submit written statements on the legal issues of the request. Indeed, by order of 4 August 2023 and in accordance with Article 66 of its Statute, the ICJ set 22 January 2024 as the deadline by which all written statements may be submitted, while 22 April 2024 was set as the final date for the submission of written observations on the remaining written statements.
After the written procedure has been completed, the Court invites all interested parties to make oral statements at public hearings on dates to be fixed by the Court. At the end of the oral procedure, the Court, in accordance with its Statute, will follow the same consultation and decision-making procedure for the adoption of its advisory opinion. Finally, the ICJ will conclude the advisory procedure by delivering its opinion at a public hearing, to which separate or different opinions of the judges may be annexed. However, still uncertain, the Peace Palace will likely issue its opinion in late 2024 or early 2025 at the latest.
Although not legally binding, the Court’s advisory opinions have great legal weight and moral authority. The advisory jurisdiction of the Court is also crucial for clarifying the international obligations of States, as well as for contributing to the progressive development of international law. In fact, the Court’s legal opinion is expected to further commit States to take strong climate action, including in the context of the Paris Agreement, thereby phasing out the accelerated burning of fossil fuels. A strong ICJ opinion could also pave the way for the formulation of a principled basis for holding states accountable for failing to comply with their climate obligations in the context of protecting nature and the interests of present and future generations. More broadly, the Court’s legal opinion could prove instrumental in domestic judicial proceedings, providing greater clarity on the obligations of states and private entities with regard to climate change legislation
“For those on the frontlines already paying the price for global heating they did nothing to cause, climate justice is both a vital recognition and a tool. Recognition that all people on our planet are of equal worth – and a tool to build resilience against spiraling climate impacts,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said emphatically, commenting at the General Assembly on the request for an advisory opinion to the world’s highest court.
 The request can be found at
 More information on the request to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights can be found at:
 UNGA Resolution A/77/L.58, 29 March 2023.
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About the author
B.A. (Panteion University), MEPIELAN Research Assistant