Climate change is the defining global crisis of the world today. Recent humanitarian crises such as droughts, famines, floods, heat waves, natural disasters and sea-level rise, which are either attributable to or exacerbated by climate change, highlight the need for a swift and resolute international response. 

Such a response should include the collective efforts of all nations and their readiness to carry out their commitments under international treaties and legal principles.

Because of the importance of the legal aspects relating to climate change, the U.N. International Law Commission recently examined a number of these issues, such as rising sea levels, protection of the environment in armed conflicts, and the protection of people in the event of disasters. Egypt invited commission members to participate in the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh and to contribute to adopting effective measures to overcome climate change.

In our assessment of the international climate treaty regime, the first major international treaty to directly address the problem was the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992, which entered into force in 1994.

That convention commits states to report on national greenhouse gas emissions, to publicize domestic and regional mitigation and adaptation programs, to share emissions reduction research and technology, and to coordinate adaptation efforts. It further commits developed nations to adopt policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial support to developing countries necessary to attain compliance.

The convention has faced some criticism for the vagueness of its mandates, but it should be considered a major achievement. It confirmed the application of international law to climate change, created structures to facilitate future international climate action, affirmed the importance of international and domestic policy reform, and served as a springboard for future treaties with stronger commitments.

Subsequently, the Conference of Parties in 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement under the auspices of the UNFCCC. That agreement was intended to serve as a long-term framework for coordinating climate action to facilitate climate mitigation, adaptation and transnational financial assistance. In that context, it called on each party to set national commitments, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing renewable energy. It further set as a goal a limit to the increase of world temperature so as not to exceed 1.5 degrees. This would be a responsibility shared by all nations while considering the differentiation between developed and developing states.

The most recent development in the UNFCCC regime was the Glasgow Climate Pact, adopted in 2021 with nearly 200 signatories. It called upon signatories to take decisive action to reduce several high-emissions activities while stipulating explicit targets and prescribing ambitious timelines. It further expanded the universe of participants by garnering commitments from civil society actors and private-sector entities.

However, like many of its predecessors, most of Glasgow’s provisions fell short of binding commitments. Moreover, the drafting of the conference’s final communique contained weaker language than its previous versions due to pressure from some developed states. For their part, the developing countries expressed disappointment over the absence in the communique of a reference to financial means of compensation for the losses caused by climate change in the developing world.

The climate summit will be a landmark moment, providing a first look at the parties’ progress toward implementing their Glasgow pledges.

While treaties may be the main source of the international climate law regime, there are also applicable rules of customary international law. Among those rules is the “no harm principle,” according to which states must prevent their activities from causing harm to other states. 

In recognition of the dangerous consequences of climate change, some international law experts suggested amending the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and adding “crime against the environment” to the other crimes over which the court has jurisdiction. Several countries have begun to support that proposal.

A further crucial environmental development took place in July when the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring for the first time that the right to a healthy environment is a human right and calling upon states and non-state actors to take steps to protect that right.

Despite the international community’s efforts to respond to the threat of climate change, states need to adopt multilateral conventions and amend existing ones to coordinate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

A convention on sea-level rise should aim to protect people displaced by climate-induced rising sea levels, which have become a real threat to many islands and coastal states.

A second climate change-related threat that has begun to materialize is desertification and water scarcity. The existing Convention on Desertification should be amended or supplemented by an additional one to provide adequate protection to people affected by water scarcity.

The COP27 conference in Egypt, which ends this week, is vital to continue the international community’s collective efforts to overcome the threat of climate change.

The conference met when the world faces serious political, economic, social and financial problems. However, that should not deter the participants from reaching a shared vision in response to climate change. COP27 is an opportunity to assess what has been achieved so far, supplement it and build upon it with new initiatives, agreements and legal frameworks for cooperation, coordination and innovation.

The participants’ success is enhanced by the growing support of civil society and the private sector for a shared vision of protecting the environment and responding to climate change. All those collective efforts should be praised.