The Rising Role of International Law in Climate Change: A Decade in Review

Climate change has emerged as a global crisis that transcends borders, making it a focal point in international law over the past decade. Unprecedented weather events, increased global temperatures, and rising sea levels have amplified the urgent call to address this existential threat. Central to this discussion is the legal framework that governs climate action and the laws that assign and enforce accountability.

Climate Change: An International Challenge

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report signaled the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent disastrous impacts on ecosystems and human lives. However, the global nature of climate change necessitates a collective response, which has intensified debates around international legal obligations and the enforcement mechanisms required to meet this target.

Paris Agreement: A Major Step Forward

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, remains a significant landmark in international law. The agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Nations individually determine their contributions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). However, while NDCs represent a flexible and inclusive approach, the lack of enforcement mechanisms has raised questions about compliance and the agreement’s effectiveness.

Legal Mechanisms for Accountability

A fundamental challenge in international climate law is ensuring accountability. One proposal gaining attention is the idea of a global carbon court that could enforce emissions targets and penalize non-compliance. Such a court would constitute an unprecedented mechanism in international law, introducing legally binding emissions reductions. The establishment of this court, however, is fraught with complexities and challenges due to sovereignty concerns.

Climate Litigation: A Growing Trend

Climate litigation has become a popular tool in enforcing climate action, with individuals, organizations, and even cities suing governments and corporations over their climate change contributions. Notable cases include the Urgenda Foundation’s lawsuit against the Dutch government, resulting in a landmark ruling in 2019 that required the government to reduce emissions. Similarly, in 2021, the German Constitutional Court ruled that Germany’s climate law was partly unconstitutional, failing to adequately protect future generations.

Rights of Climate Refugees

A significant development in international law is the recognition of climate refugees. Environmental changes, including rising sea levels and extreme weather events, are displacing more people. However, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not acknowledge climate refugees, leaving a gap in international law. Recent cases, such as Teitiota v. New Zealand in the UN Human Rights Committee, have set precedents for recognizing climate change as a grounds for seeking asylum, indicating a growing shift in international legal discourse.


Climate change is reshaping the landscape of international law. Legal mechanisms like the Paris Agreement, climate litigation, and the evolving recognition of climate refugees are driving progress. However, formidable challenges persist, particularly around accountability and enforcement. The decade ahead will undoubtedly witness further evolutions in international law as the world grapples with the climate crisis. The global community must

Scroll to Top