Vanuatu, a small archipelago whose future is threatened by rising sea levels, has been pushing for the resolution, which asks the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion laying out countries’ obligations for protecting the climate, and the legal consequences they face if they fail to do so.
"Today we have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions," said Vanuatu Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau after the vote.
Although no country objected to the resolution's consensus adoption, the United States and China, the world's two largest carbon emitters, were not among the 130 co-sponsors.
The resolution asks the ICJ to clarify "legal consequences" for states that "have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment."
It specifically asks the court to weigh obligations to "small island developing states," which are "particularly vulnerable" to climate change, as well as obligations to future generations.
It could take the ICJ up to two years to issue an opinion. And while the court's opinions are not binding, they carry significant legal and moral weight, and are often taken into account by national courts.
An ICJ opinion "would assist the General Assembly, the UN and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
During negotiations on the Paris Agreement, US diplomats secured the addition of language specifying that the text "does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation."
But the backers of the new resolution backers hope other instruments, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, could offer pathways for enforcement.
US representative Nicholas Hill said of Wednesday’s resolution that it “could complicate our collective efforts and will not bring us closer to achieving these shared goals" of reducing emissions, adding that he prefers diplomacy to "a judicial process".
The ICJ’s advisory opinion could be a vital input to a growing number of climate-driven lawsuits around the world – some 2,000 cases are pending worldwide.
On Wednesday the European Court of Human Rights opened its first ever cases against governments for alleged climate inaction. France and Switzerland are accused of failing to protect the environment.
Last week the UN's IPCC panel of climate experts warned that global average temperatures could reach 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels by 2030-2035 unless emissions are halved by 2030, underlining the need for drastic action this decade.