Student Id: 201523674
Word Count: 2616
Discuss, using examples of international environmental agreements and the key
principles of international environment law, why despite the almost universal
acceptance of ‘common concern’ effective and meaningful global action is limited.
Out of the 8 million species that inhabit the earth, Humans have had the greatest
impact on the planet earth (UNEP 2011). And while human activity over thousands of
years has impinged earth systems in deep rooted ways. However, over the last
century, unparalleled human activities have had a palpable impact- there have been
changes in sea level and global climate, acceleration of erosion and unusual
movement of species across the planet unlike anything witnessed before (University
of Leicester 2016). Scientists believe that we have officially entered the geological
epoch of the Anthropocene in which the earth systems are significantly impacted by
human activities. These changes in the earth’s systems have been accompanied by
some major events in the socio-economic front as well. The use and abuse of natural
resources has worsened with massive increase in water and energy use due to
increase in population and changes in lifestyle. Another peculiar factor about this
phenomena is what American planetary scientist David Grinspoon (2016) terms as
self- conscious global change. Meaning that there is now a widespread awareness of
the seriousness of environmental problems and their link with human activities
although only a few grasp the complexities of the causes and effects of these issues.
Due to the complex nature of environmental problems such as climate change, it has
come to be understood that these are ‘political problems’. The nature of these
problems is such that despite common concern, meaningful action is limited. There
is contention regarding the nature, seriousness and relevance of these problems.
Who takes action and what course of action to take are highly debated. In general,
the contested nature of the problem, the involvement of various actors such as the
state, civil society, scientists and markets add to the complexity of environmental
problems. Stevenson (2018) notes how it takes a long time for political actors to
recognise the seriousness of a problem and even longer to plan actions to address
them. Furthermore, due to partial, delayed or sometimes abandonment,
implementation fails and policies fail. However, policies continue to be made at the
global, national and local level, and various actors are highly invested in mitigating or
adapting to environmental problems. This paper looks at how at the global level
efforts are formed and how they play out, in the context of global environmental
The North South divide
One of the major factors that has played a major role in influencing the course of
action and implementation is the North South divide. With developed countries of the
Global North and underdeveloped countries of the Global South being at different
developmental paths, and having immensely varied impact on the environment, a
common plan of action has always been a point of contention.
While preparing for the Stockholm Conference, developing countries showed
reservations and threatened to boycott the conference. They feared for their
economic development which could be impacted by the international environmental
agenda. To address this concern, the Founex Report was commissioned. This report
differentiated between the environmental problems of developed and developing
countries. While nations of the Global North faced problems of industrial pollution,
developing nations faced scarcity of clean water, sanitation, housing, nutrition,
occurrence of diseases and natural disasters- problems that threatened the lives of
their citizens. The report noted that the concerns of the developed countries were
reflected in the ‘human environment issues’ of the time rather than any concerns of
the developing nations. The concept of development was sought to be made more
central to human environmental concerns and especially in the context of the
Stockholm conference. It stated that development itself was the solution to the
issues faced by developing countries. However, bringing together development plans
and environmental conservation would not be without costs. Developed nations
would have to play their part in ensuring their efforts for conservation would not
impose further cost on developing countries. By bringing development to the centrestage, the conference attracted many poorer countries to participate. The conference
recognised the differences between environmental problems that developed and
developing nations faced and stated the importance of the movement of adequate
financial and technological assistance to developing countries from developed
Global political climate
Environmental multilateralism is affected by various factors such as geopolitical
tensions, international mood and major world events (Stevenson, 2018). US politics
has always had an important influence over global environmental governance. As
George W Bush became president, environmental multilateralism weakened as he
held a belligerent stance on international cooperation (Dietrich, 2015). In terms of
environmental cooperation, US interest has been declining since the mid 1990s.
During President Clinton’s tenure, while US diplomats continued to participate
internationally for the negotiation of MEA’s, their view often clashed with that of the
Congress. And often, the negotiations happened only at the international level and
no action was taken at the domestic level. The position of US as pertaining to
environmental conservation further declined with the republican administration of
Bush Jr. he announced his intention to withdraw US from the Kyoto protocol just a
few months after coming to office.
The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent terror events realigned
the international agenda as focus moved away from environmental concerns. In
2009, as Obama came into power with the democratic party, there was hope that the
US would pave the way for effective environmental policy and cooperation as cutting
domestic GHG emissions and global cooperation on climate change were oft
mentioned in Obama’s campaigning (Broder 2008; Revkin et al. 2008). However,
with Donald Trump’s presidency, any effort previously made was pulled apart. At
present, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again overshadowed the environmental
agenda as personal protection equipment and surgical masks have become key to
survival but also add to non-biodegradable waste.
International Law
Many have questioned the efficacy of international law as regardless of several
multilateral developments throughout the 20th century, the state remains the highest
authority. Nevertheless, when it comes to international agreements, the strength can
be distinguished in terms of soft laws and hard laws. Resolutions, guidelines,
declarations, action plans and roadmaps that are drafted in meetings with state
representatives are soft laws. These texts are not legally binding and are voluntary,
however there can be political consequences if states fail to comply. Hard law on the
other hand like treaties are legally binding obligations. The process of producing a
treaty is recognised as a law-making process by states. For instance, in the US, the
president can sign a conference declaration without any special procedure, but for a
treaty, approval from two-thirds of the country’s senators is required before it can be
The global scenario of environmental action has become even more complex as in
the recent decades, the participation of non-state actors has become noticeable. The
role of non governmental organisations and business as important pressure groups
is now being recognised at the global level as states themselves share power with
these actors. These more informal connections have also tried to forge their own
systems, standards and goals towards bringing change in environmental policy
making and implementation.
Climate Change and global environmental politics
Climate change has perhaps been one of the most contested environmental
concerns of today. Be it the nature, the magnitude or ways to tackle it, climate
change has been a highly debated phenomena. There have been disagreements
within the scientific community itself. For instance, in the late 2000s, the aspirational
numerical target for global climate change policy was 350 ppm. However, 400 ppm
or even 450 ppm has been accepted as a more feasible target by diplomats. This
reflects what is politically possible and what is socially desirable. Some others have
debated about a temperature target being more meaningful rather than an
atmospheric concentration target. Each target, each number, has a different
consequence and a different risk and none could be called as ‘objectively’ correct.
Due to this convoluted nature of climate change, some scholars call it a ‘wicked’
policy problem. A wicked problem is one which is hard to diagnose or apply a
straightforward solution to (Stevenson 2018). Economic and cultural systems as of
now require the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change requires urgent action- the
longer we take to mitigate emissions, the worse their impact becomes and it
becomes costlier to mitigate or even adapt. Climate change is defined by several
stakeholders in their own ways and their responses are according to their own
interpretations and vested interests. Hence, the ‘solutions’ proposed may not be the
most effective. International negotiations have also been fraught with challenges as
noted in the next section on the UNFCCC.
Responding to a wicked problem at an international level- UNFCCC
During 1991 and 1992, in 16 months the UNFCCC was negotiated. The notion that
the industrialized countries should bear responsibility and leadership wasn’t
disputed. But the parties (states) differed on how to designate ‘developed’ and
‘developing’. Some countries simply wanted to list them in each category while
others based on per capita threshold. Towards the end, the came up with three
categories concluding that not all developed countries are the same: The most
prosperous countries were under Annex l; ‘Economies in transition’ were defined as
Annex ll countries (Europe’s post-communist countries) and the rest were defined as
non-Annex l countries. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities
was established in the convention.
Most industrialised countries accepted ‘taking the lead’ by reducing domestic
emissions. The US, on the other hand, resisted it stating that it was too rigid and did
not consider the county’s unique circumstances. The oil-producing states supported
the US in pushing for a convention based on more general national programs and
strategies. A compromised approach of ‘pledge and review’ was put forward by
Japan, where states would pledge to limit GHG emissions by strategies which would
later be assessed by an expert panel (Bodansky, 1993: 486). Towards the end,
mostly qualitative commitments such as compiling national emission inventories,
national strategies, and reporting were listed. In Article 4.2, A fairly loose collective
target was agreed upon which instructed industrialized countries to adopt and report
on national policies 'to return individually or jointly to their 1990 (GHG) levels'
(UNFCCC, 1992). It was the first step forward to a more detailed multilateral
agreement. It went into force in 1994, and the negotiations began on what would be
called the Kyoto Protocol. The US and Germany both shared the idea of ‘more
advanced developing countries’ to restrict emission growth from China, Brazil and
South Korea. This united the developing countries with the argument that wealthy
countries should show leadership as they were the ones who created the climate
change threat. But the Kyoto Protocol pushed them to increase strong action. By
mid-1990s the negotiations focused on efficiently reducing global emissions without
interrupting economic growth. This gave way to the idea of flexible mechanisms. It
facilitated action in developing countries and minimized the cost of meeting targets in
industrialized countries. The developed countries invested in GHG mitigation in
lesser developed countries or buy emission credits through a trading system. In the
Kyoto Protocol, three market-based mechanisms were agreed: Emission trading
(buying and selling of emission permits), Joint Implementation (claiming credit by
investing in reduction projects in other countries), Clean Development Mechanism
(claim emission credits by investing in projects should contribute to sustainable
development in developing countries). Together they are called global ‘carbon
market’. It's irrelevant to rely on a carbon market at a precise location, mitigation can
be pursued if it is cheaper to reduce emissions in some countries. Wealthy
economies which are fossil fuel-intensive, need to decarbonize their economies but
carbon markets do not emphasise on this process making a false impression of
countries becoming sustainable. Nevertheless, A global reduction target of 5% below
1990 levels was agreed by the parties by 2012. -8% for rich European countries, -7%
for the US and zero growth for Russia (UNFCCC, 2017).
Developing countries had to participate in the carbon market and manage their
emissions but all this wasn’t enough to make the Kyoto Protocol successful.
Countries found the task of reducing GHG emissions too expensive and difficult. The
US withdrew in 2001, Canada was unable to reach target and Russia and Japan did
not sign new targets. In 2012, the Kyoto Protocol ended. The UN’s climate change
regime and responsibility of mitigating climate change were questioned. When GHG
emissions from China began to eclipse those of rich nations, it was unrealistic to
exempt them from emission reduction commitments. But wealthy nations had failed
to limit their emissions and technological and financial commitments under UNFCC
and Agenda 21. Plus the per capita emissions in developing countries was much
lesser than that of developed nations. In 2009, at the Copenhagen climate summit
nations were unable to reach an agreement on mitigation, finance, adaptation and
technology. Rule of consensus and expectation of universal participation in
multilateral negotiations were the two roadblocks. The US gathered with Russia,
Brazil, China, India and South Africa (BRICS) for their interests.
The European countries were annoyed by this and argued that this would endanger
the environment and missions of people (Stevenson, 2014). The consensus
remained the only way of making decisions as parties in UNFCC never agreed on
formal rules of procedure (Yamin and Depledge, 2004: 432–3). The ‘Copenhagen
Accord’ was a frail piece of soft law inefficient in delivering effective action on climate
change. After six years, in 2015, the Paris Agreement was introduced. Political
ambition and trust in the UN were rebuilt with China and the US leadership (40% of
GHG emissions). It was welcomed as US leadership had adversely affected climate
change negotiations and China made comparable commitments. All 188 countries
that were producing 95% of global emissions were there (Ivanova 2016: 414). The 5% emission reduction target and individual targets for developed states within that
limit under Kyoto was replaced by ‘pledge and review’ model. States could now
pledge their own goals and be reviewed by a UN committee. This did not allocate
countries into developed and developing countries but still refers to them as such.
Developing countries should gradually make mitigation efforts to reduce emissions
and developed countries should reduce GHG emissions. After coming to force on 4th
November 2016, states were asked to give in plans for climate change which would
be reviewed every 5 years by UN expert panel. But it didn’t have any legal obligation
to execute the pledge and no penalising if it was broken (Falkner, 2016). It aims to
restrict global temperature increase to 2 C above pre-industrial levels and points to
the 1.5 target worth going for (UNFCCC 2015a). But the flexible nature and the
bottom-up approach makes it impossible to ensure that the goals can be achieved. It
depicts a new chapter in the global climate regime. Widening the responsibility to
states and non-state actors and actions being taken out of the UN system.
The nature of environmental multilateralism, the priorities of participating member
countries, geopolitics, major world events, and the political economy of addressing
environmental issues as discussed above have meant that despite common
concern, effective and meaningful action is limited.
1. Bodansky, D. 1993. ‘The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change:A Commentary’, Yale Journal of International Law 18: 453–558.
2. Broder, J.M. 2008. ‘Obama Affirms Climate Change Goals’, The New York
Times, Last
accessed 7 December 2016.
3. Dietrich, J.W. 2015. The George W. Bush Foreign Policy Reader: Presidential
Speeches with Commentary. Abingdon: Routledge.
4. Grinspoon, D. 2016. ‘Welcome to Terra Sapiens’, Aeon, 20 December, Last accessed21 December 2016.
5. Revkin, A., Carter, S., Ellis, J., Hossa, F., and McLean, A. 2008. ‘On the
Issues: Climate Change’, The New York Times Last accessed 9
December 2016.
6. Stevenson, H., 2018. Global Environmental Politics: Problems, Policy, And
Practice. Cambridge University Press.
7. UNEP. 2011. ‘How Many Species on Earth? 8.7 Million, Says New Study’, Last accessed 24 May 2017.
8. Ivanova, M. 2016. ‘Good COP, Bad COP: Climate Reality after Paris’, Global
Policy 7(3):411–19.