Governing global environmental agreements.

Image by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment |

Image by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment |

In 2013, trade accounted for 59.6% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to the World Bank. In fact, trade as a percentage of global GDP has increased substantially over the decades increasing from 24% in 1960 to 38% in 1985 and 54% in 2005.

Yet, the growth in trade has also seen a rise in greenhouse gas emissions over that same time as production, movement, and consumption of goods and services has increased. For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that in 2010, “global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reached an all-time high of 30.6 Gt despite the recent economic crisis.” Likewise, deforestation, falling water tables, desertification, overfishing, and overconsumption in various parts of the world are well documented and quite depressing.

Perhaps most disturbing though is that these issues are well-known to policy makers and attempts have even been made to address these at a global level, but progress has not necessarily resulted. There are three major reasons for this. First, after trade, the “environment is now the second-most common area of global rule-making.” While, this would appear to be a good thing, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has referred to this as “treaty congestion”.

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), there have been “500 internationally recognised agreements in the past 50 years, including 61 atmosphere-related; 155 biodiversity-related; 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substances and waste; 46 land conventions; and 196 conventions that are broadly related to issues dealing with water".

However, while the numbers sound good, the result has been to have a number of treaties that may overlap, contradict, miss, or duplicate responsibilities and goals that in the end lead to inaction. John Vidal from the Guardian does a nice job of summarizing many of these issues.

In 1972, when the UNEP was established, it was designed, among other things, to be the lead actor in coordinating governance issues related to the environment. However, today, over 35 different agencies are now involved in some way in environmental issues. While this signals that environmental concerns are now part of the discussion at various other UN agencies, it makes coordination and effective treaty development difficult.

The second major reason that environmental governance has not led to more environmental progress is due to the age-old issue of political will and the ability of national governments to simply ignore their responsibilities. In fact, this was the case when Canada abandoned its Kyoto commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Not only did this reflect badly on Canada, but it also had the effect of further diminishing the credibility of the Kyoto Accord itself.

With the Road to Paris culminating in December 2015 (COP 21) with the aim to reach an agreement on addressing climate change, the issues of global governance and political will are once more front and center.

Yet, as Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail notes, even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process that has been in existence for more than 20 years and has governed climate discussions and agreements has yielded little in the way of results. “There is nothing at all visible and comprehensible in the mountain of political treaties, conventions and protocols intended to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions and their physical consequences. A quarter-century of negotiations and commitments have produced no decrease in either emissions or climate damage…. After all, this year’s Paris Framework is simply another deal building on the Lima Call for Action, the Doha Amendment, the Durban Platform, the Cancun Agreements, the Copenhagen Accord, the Bali Action Plan, the Marrakesh Accords, the Kyoto Protocol and the Berlin Mandate, none of which have stopped us from belching out gases.”

This raises the third major challenge, which is that enforcement is often missing from environmental agreements. Unlike in the trade regime where a dispute resolution mechanism exists via the World Trade Organization (though far from perfect), there is no similar mechanism as part of the UNEP or UNFCCC process to deal with non-compliance.

In short, environmental issues remain a governance challenge despite the various groups, agencies, and organizations that now include such concerns in their own work. The current situation is one of confusion and in clear need of reform. If only the same level of attention and interest could be applied to the way in which trade agreements and institutions have developed…

This article was originally posted by Sustainable Collective which has since joined foreces with The Starfish Canada.