Global Environmental Politics essay

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The world has warmed less than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, yet we are already starting to experience the devastating impacts of human-induced climate change. Meanwhile, the collective low level of ambition on emissions reductions will soon foreclose our ability to stay below the 2 degrees increase in global temperatures that world leaders have committed to avoid. The time for finger-pointing, blame-casting, and hiding behind the inaction of others is over. What we demand from all countries in [the next round of talks] is three things: action, ambition, and accountability.      - Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists

Multilateral Agreements

Multilateralism can be generally described as the idea that several nation states and international organisations agree solutions or steps forward on a certain international issue. Ruggie (1992) describes it as “An institutional form that has evolved to enable cooperation and coordination between three or more states based on: generalised principles of conduct, indivisibility” and the will to “diffuse reciprocity”.

Multilateral agreements are used to limit or reduce environmental damage. The United Nations’ structures for environmental governance, summits on the environment and so-called ‘soft law’ (e.g. international standards, declarations and action plans) are all examples of multilateral agreements.

Multilateralism covers three main types of body: international orders, international regimes and international organisations. International orders are the basis of agreements. They are the rules which set out how international relations should work: a constitution for the international community. International regimes are the treaties and informal agreements which are agreed. These regimes include soft law.  Robert O. Keohane (1993) describes international regimes as “Institutions with explicit rules, agreed upon by governments, that pertain to particular sets of issues in international relations.”

The final body is international organisations. These act as administrations and vehicles to bring the different nations together in order to form a multilateral agreement. The most famous example of this is the United Nations and its agencies.

With all the world’s nations affected by the environmental damage caused by gas emissions, it would be very difficult to co-ordinate every country’s environmental promises and legislation without an agreement on the common framework and objectives.

Multilateral agreements ensure that a national government is not merely acting for its own best interests. If international norms exist, it is clear to see where the state is succeeding and which areas it may be neglecting. Progress can be monitored and reported by neutrals.

On a more positive note, states can be provided with assistance in implementation, give each other assurance on progress and see the incentives for participating when other states comply. Also, a multilateral agreement allows nations to share best practice and understand better from each other how to measure progress. 

Most important of all, however, is that a multilateral agreement can stop the more powerful nations from agreeing measures between themselves, to the detriment of the weaker states. If all countries agree to a framework, any bilateral agreement benefitting the most industrialised countries would be in breach of the international regime.

Multilateralism has been the approach used almost exclusively to date on order to minimise environmental damage. After all, it seems logical that a multilateral agreement be used as a tool to reduce emissions. Greenhouse gases do not stop at national frontiers, so neighbouring countries need to agree to the same principles.

Environmental Multilateral Agreements

When the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945, the world was coming out of the turmoil of the Second World War. Peace, security and human rights were understandably the priority at the moment.

However in the United Nations recognised the need for economic development with lower environmental impact, by creating the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972. Its remit was to assist developing countries in implementing environmentally-friendly policies and practices.

As scientific evidence of the harm being done by countries to the environment, the United Nations organised a conference in Rio de Janeiro, called the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992. Nicknamed the “Earth Summit”, UNCED delegates negotiated a multilateral treaty on climate change, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

The UNFCC was designed to form the legal basis from which protocols could be added. These protocols set legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for each signatory country. The United Nations invited every country to sign the protocols.  The Kyoto Protocol targeted energy goals and was signed by almost every country in the world.

Signatory countries were divided into three broad categories: Annexes I, II and Developing Countries. Annex 1 countries were industrialised countries and those countries in transition towards industrialisation. Forty-one countries fell into this category and the European Union signed as well, so that Brussels could adopt a collective approach. These countries agreed to set their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. If these levels were exceeded, the governments would have to buy emission allowances of re-negotiate with the UNFCC.

Annex II was a sub-group of Annex I. It comprised developed countries which agreed to pay for the costs of developing countries meeting the target. There were twenty-four of these, plus the European Union. They were all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Developing countries were not required to reduce emissions unless one of the Annex II countries provided funding and technology for low-carbon investments. The idea was to avoid restricting these countries’ economic development. These countries could also sell emissions credits to other countries.

Lack of effectiveness of the climate change agreements

The Kyoto Protocol, which set the limits of the emissions, was agreed in 1997 and entered into force on 16th January 2005. It set the measuring period at 2005 to 2012, after which countries would have to pay for any breach of quota. Measuring its effectiveness is somewhat difficult, as the earth’s warming is such a gradual process. However, academics have criticised it for several reasons.

Gupta et al (2007) analysed the wording of the UNFCC’s documentation and the Kyoto Protocol and found several flaws. The main weaknesses observed centred on the goals set and the countries’ roles.

To start with, Gupta et al noted a “lack of an explicit long-term goal”. This meant that signatory countries did not have clear definitions in order to form national policy and adhere to international policy. Scientists agreed; Cofree-Morlot and Höhne (2003) suggested that politicians have made no indication of how to interpret Article 2 of the Kyoto Protocol.

Other criticisms Gupta et al agreed with were that the greenhouse gas emission targets were not stringent enough, as den Elzen and Meinshauen (2005) felt, and that the agreements did not have cast-iron compliance provisions (Aldy et al, 2003).

Added to these doubts about the effectiveness of the wording, there is also the political reality of the Kyoto Protocol. The United States, statistically the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, refused to sign the Protocol and has still not signed today. Neighbouring Canada pulled out of the agreement in December 2011, with the Minister of Environment citing that meeting Canada’s obligations would cost C$13.6bn, “That’s C$1,600 from every Canadian family”.

One could argue that with all these short comings in the Kyoto Protocol, the simple solution would be to agree on a new protocol. We have seen with the United States’ refusal to participate, getting every government to agree on well-defined treaty, with specific objectives and measures, is very difficult. This all inclusive ‘large-n’ multilateralism makes progress slow.

Not only that, but agreements finally reached are often diluted, as negotiators strive for compromise to get some form of regime in place. For this very reason, as the European Union has expanded, this kind of agreement has become less-and-less frequent as it happens legislation adoption significantly.

Added to this difficulty is the fact that the Kyoto Protocol is not the only regime designed to arrest climate change. As this subject affects the entire world, there are many interested parties. This brings about a scenario which is highly fragmented, making cooperation across all countries, companies and interests exceptionally complex. It falls perfectly into Raustiala and Victor’s (2004) definition of a regime complex: “an array of partially overlapping and non-hierarchical institutions governing a particular issue-area”

The United Nations (via the UNDP and the UNEP) runs funding mechanisms with partners, such as the Global Environmental Facility with the World Bank. Analysis and reports are provided by the United Nations-run International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The UN also has agencies which monitor and offer positions on climate change control (e.g. the aforementioned UNDP and UNEP, as well as the World Meteorological Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation). There is the 1987 Montreal Protocol which is an international treaty aimed at protecting the ozone layer by phasing out the usage of gases and other substances which deplete it.

Outside the UN’s remit, there are national expert bodies, which produce reports similar to those of the IPCC. Several of the world’s countries are members of certain clubs, such as the G8 for the largest economical powers. Their objectives are to reach agreements over trade and factors which affect it, climate change being one. Bilateral agreements have also been made between countries which agree on rules on emissions, amongst other issues, and unilateral agreements set by a national government, regional government or an industry body. The World Bank also provides funding for investment in technology or techniques that reduce emissions.

Added to this are other concerned bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), groups of Nuclear powers, financial market and investment regulators. Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) such as Greenpeace and the WWF actively push their position on particular environmental issues and monitor government and corporate practice.

If this complication of different organisations were not enough, the subject matter itself is advanced science. Records and their meanings are often subjects of great debates between experts. It is therefore difficult for politicians to negotiate and prioritise proposed reductions if they do not understand the science. 

Politicians also debate who should bear the burden for damage to the environment. The Canadian Environment Minister’s reaction was not unique. Many governments have pointed fingers at each other, and particularly at the United States. Of course, in the case of Kyoto, the US is not liable to buy any emissions credits or pay any fine as it is not a party to the Protocol.

Multilateral environmental agreements have also been criticised for having weak enforcement provisions (Rugman and Brewer, 2003). It is exceptionally difficult to enforce such an agreement if there is no authority to effectively police the signatories.

Also as the multilateral environmental agreements come into force, it becomes obvious that there remain important gaps in regulation, both at international level and in national implementation.

Other global factors

It would be facile to blame multilateral environmental agreements purely for the failure to curb harmful emissions. There are many other factors which have also made significant contributions.

To start with, environmental regulation at national level has been extremely varied. Northern European countries such as Sweden and Germany have implemented regulations at national and local level. Such policies are in turn monitored by the European Commission. Yet, attitudes to environmental issues in India are entirely different. Persuading the Indian government to prioritise alternative energies when the majority of rural areas in India still do not have electricity is tricky to say the least.

The politics of world trade have also hampered efforts to find effective environmental agreements. Until the crash of 2008, globalisation was in ascendency- In the developed world, corporations put huge pressure on national regulators and governments to actively reduce regulation. While this is well known in the financial markets, it also means less restriction on environmental issues. Huge resistance to regulation has come from fossil-fuel providers, such as global oil companies.

Furthermore the Earth Summit took place a mere two years after the end of the cold war. It was impossible to successfully predict how the political balance would be several years on. When the world had previously been virtually split in two, with pressure coming from either the USA or the USSR, there was suddenly a vacuum. Nowadays, the US is still the most industrialised nation, but China is gaining quickly. Thus since the 1990’s influence has shifted and nations are negotiating with new partners and dealing with new rivalries.

The ‘Minilateral’ approach

Having seen the shortfalls in multilateralism and the challenges provided by the global context today, international law and politics experts are understandably looking for new solutions. One such possibility is to put minilateral agreements into place.

As Naím (2009) puts it, minilateralism is “The smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem.”

Where bilateral agreements are often deals done between two countries, solely for their own benefit, minilateralism agreements aim to unblock an impasse in order to persuade everyone else to follow suit.

The smaller number of countries at the negotiating table will mean in theory that the final agreement will be less diluted. Less dilution should in turn make for a stronger regime. Olson (1965) suggests that cooperation becomes harder, the larger the number of parties involved. Still a certain number of countries are required to be able to influence those not at the negotiation table. Naím calls this the “Magic number”.

If minilateralism is the way forward, it is necessary to see how it will be implemented. As mentioned above, the number of UN agencies and other international bodies involved in research, monitoring, administrating and trying to enforce environmental agreements is so large, co-ordination is close to impossible. In fact governance has come about on an ad-hoc basis, as Kanie (2007) suggests, “Unlike the post-war financial and commercial regimes, which have been organized around a small number of formal institutions with fairly clearly demarcated norms and rules, environmental governance has evolved incrementally over the last 35 years.”

It is therefore crucial to create one umbrella organisation which brings all of these bodies together. This would indeed create another bureaucratic organisation, but it would also simplify responsibilities and accountability. If the UNEP and UNDP disagreed on an approach or interpretation of data, they would have to reach agreement in order for the organisation to present a coherent plan of action.

This organisation should also be responsible for monitoring the theoretical and practical implementation of international agreements in signatory states. Under the terms of the agreements, it would be allowed to police these countries and enforce fines on them if they do not comply with agreed emission quotas. A similar role is taken on by the European Commission’s Competition Directorate General, which monitors European governments’ granting of state aid to companies and creating an uneven playing field in Europe.

The financial and commercial regimes Kanie (2007) talks about are institutions created at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, namely the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and GATT (later to become the WTO). Although all three institutions’ roles evolved into something different to what was intended at the Conference, these institutions had at least been put in place to manage and provide a forum for the world economy.

The WTO has become a powerful force in international trade negotiation. While its predecessor was in fact a series of agreements, the WTO has taken that role on and has been given the power to resolve disputes between countries. This dispute resolution process has been criticised in its selection of which cases to adjudicate on, as the most politicised cases sometime take priority over more important trade issues. However, it is an instrument in place which breaks the deadlock. Davis (2008) in her report concludes that “WTO dispute settlement is effective to bring progress to change the trade barrier and shorten the duration of the dispute.”

The environmental agreement structure therefore needs to have a body similar to the WTO. It would firstly provide a permanent forum for negotiation in interpretation of emissions quota agreements. Secondly, it can perform a similar dispute settlement role to that of the WTO, by adjudicating on whether a country has indeed met its emissions quotas. In the case where the country has not met its requirements and refuses to pay the consequences, it will be fined further. Thirdly, it needs to give an environmental counter-balance to the WTO, whose negotiations concentrate solely on the needs for trade.

Of course, the only way such an institution can exercise its powers is to have a solid legal backing. There would be no point in spending time on imposing fines on countries if they were easily able to ignore the adjudication. Thus a fundamental necessity would to have its existence sent out in a basic law or constitution. As this institution would come under the remit of the United Nations, it is fundamental that environmental protection be added to the UN Charter.

Environmental protection is however different to trade in one important way. Unpredictable accidents take place, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. While the international community mobilised to provide expertise and assistance to Japan to minimise the effects, it was done by different individual organisations. This criticism was also levelled at relief efforts following the Danube floods in Europe in 2006.

With the creation of a single centralised UN environmental institution, environmental disaster avoidance or relief operations could be centrally coordinated and therefore quicker to respond and more effective.


It is clear that the current multilateral method of negotiating environmental agreements has many flaws. The result is that the world’s heaviest polluter nowadays signs around a third of all agreements. Furthermore, large-scale negotiation results in the provisions in the final drafts being so diluted, they do not reduce emissions significantly enough to tackle global warming.

On the other hand, bilateral and unilateral environmental agreements are relatively microscopic in terms of the global problem to provide a concrete solution.

Minilateral agreements in which big polluters agree to concrete, significant objectives would have an important impact on environmental damage. Furthermore, it is quite feasible that once such agreements are in place, the rest of the world would be under pressure to fall in line with them.

That said, for any such agreement to be enforceable, it is necessary to centralise the UN agencies and other world bodies. These would provide efficient data collection, evidence of non-compliance and action for those who refuse to comply.

Thus, the United Nations should add environmental damage to its Charter, and create an Environmental Protection Commission. The Commission would have departments for research, monitoring, dispute settlement, enforcement and security/disaster relief.

The enforcement division would act on the orders of the dispute settlement division, against any country which did not comply with the dispute settlement division’s verdict. The country would of course have the right to appeal. Appeals could be made to an International Environment Court, where judges of different nationalities would sit.

Minilaterlaism may therefore be the answer, provided the correct institutions and legal backing are put in place.

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