Global Governance and the Environment: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Global Governance in Tackling Contemporary Environmental Issues

By Richard E. Poole
2012, Vol. 4 No. 06 | pg. 2/3 |

Of course, it is wrong to dismiss unilateral efforts that seek to tackle environmental issues as futile. In fact, unilateral actions can be beneficial for greater global governance of such challenges as well as in and of themselves. When actors act unilaterally, they can set a precedent that can encourage, and even pressure, other actors into similar policy decisions or multilateral agreements; what can be classed as “multilateral standard-setting” (Bodansky 2000, p. 344). Further still, such actions mean that environmental concerns are kept salient on the agenda of global governance actors. “Unilateralism is therefore not necessarily destabilizing” (Bodansky 2000, p. 339).

Taking into account the inherently global nature of environmental challenges, it seems unsurprising that a system of global environmental governance has emerged. Whilst it is difficult to precisely pinpoint the materialization of environmental concerns and voices on a global scale, a number of authors agree that the Stockholm Conference of 1972 and the consequential creation the UNEP, served as the first major marker of the institutionalization of environmental governance on a global scale (Biermann and Bauer 2005, pp. 03-04). Since then, the GEG architecture has evolved to include a wide range of international institutions, secretariats and summits, such as the Framework Convention on (UNFCCC, 2011).

However, scholars such as Roy and Ivanova have argued that the current architecture of the global environmental regime is weak, limiting how far the system can successfully address contemporary environmental challenges (Roy and Ivanova 2007, pp. 48-49). Most prominently, unlike other issue regimes such as trade or health, global environmental governance lacks a central institution or authority. In other words, whilst there is a World Trade Organization (WTO), which is “the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations”, there is no equivalent World Environment Organization (WEO) with equal international standing, authority and distinctiveness (WTO, 2011).

Many authors therefore point to the UNEP as the ‘anchor’ of the global environmental governance architecture. As Desombre states, the “UNEP is the closest thing there is to an overarching global institution for the environment” (Desombre 2006, p. 09). Roy and Ivanova’s argument is clearly manifest within the wording of the UNEP itself, being considered as a program, rather than as an autonomous organization or specialized UN agency. Therefore, an analysis of its effectiveness as an organization in tackling environmental challenges is key component in evaluating the effectiveness of the GEG system as a whole.

In respect of this lack of a central authority, a key area of study for academics has been the level of institutional fragmentation and the consequent lack of co-ordination amongst global environmental institutions. Even the United Nations itself has considered how the institutional fragmentation of environmental issues has impacted upon the UNEP’s effectiveness, arguing “the flourishing of new international institutions poses problems of co-ordination, eroding responsibilities and resulting in duplication of work as well as increased demand upon ministries and government” (United Nations 1998 cited in Andersen 2001, p. 19). Concentrating on the UN only, the “UNEP competes for responsibility, political support, and resources with more than a dozen other UN bodies, including the UN Commission on Sustainable (CSD), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC)” (Global Environmental Project 2011). This may not simply entail a lack of co-ordination, but also a level of competitiveness amongst these institutions. As a case in point, “the relationship between UNEP and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been characterized by turf battles and eroding responsibility” (Andersen 2001, p. 22).

In addition, the UNEP does not hold autonomous control over its finance mechanisms. The Global Environmental Facility, and its role as a financier for various conventions and projects, further undermines the authority of the UNEP in environmental management (Desombre 2006, p. 13). As Najam notes, “in spite of UNEP’s key role in international environmental policy formulation, UNEP’s relationship with the GEF has been kept weak and it has been denied the one instrument that could have given it real influence” (Najam et. al 2006, p. 42). More generally then, “the inadequacy and dispersion of the existing financial mechanisms – scattered across the Global Environmental Facility, UN Development Program, World Bank, and separate funds such as the Montreal Protocol Finance Mechanism” further fragments the system (Global Environmental Project 2011).

Yet, it is not only specialized environmental organizations that form the structural make-up of GEG. Many other international institutions take environmental issues into account, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank. For example, in 1994, the WTO established the Committee on Trade and Development (CTD), set up to “identify the relationship between trade measures and environmental measures in order to promote sustainable development” (WTO 2011). Adding complexity, and, it is argued, further fragmenting the GEG system. The environment is therefore not simply a standalone issue, but is tied to various other policy areas, including trade, finance, health and poverty.

GEG Policy - The Example of Climate Change

Yet, weaknesses are not only apparent in the structuring and design of the system, but are also visible in the actions these actors take within this system. One of the most evident forms of global environmental governance has been the creation and proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and treaties, particularly as they provide the legal framework for addressing contemporary environmental challenges. As Kanie states, “varying methodologies used for counting MEAs have resulted in different numbers, but many researchers and analysts agree that there is a proliferation of MEAs, constituting [it as] a key characteristic of the existing environmental governance system” (Kanie 2007, p. 68). As an example, there have been estimates of “more than 500 MEAs registered with the UN, including 61 atmosphere-related” agreements (Kanie 2007, p. 68). However, there are various barriers faced by global actors during the process and implementation of MEAs, which can determine the overall effectiveness of these agreements in tackling environmental problems. These include for example, the level of negotiation and participation by actors at the start of proceedings, and the effectiveness of MEAs in achieving the overall goals they set. This will be explored herein, using the issue of climate change as a policy example throughout.

The reasons for a focus on climate change are all but apparent in the global environmental governance network. As Sebastian Oberthür notes, “the international regime on climate change is one of the broadest and most complex international governance systems in the field of environment and beyond. Representing the biggest environmental challenges at the beginning of the twenty-first century, climate change has a variety of impacts on the natural environment and on human society” (Oberthur 2006, p. 53). With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the issue of climate change, so prominent in worldwide media, has found its way to the forefront of policy issues in international institutions. As a result, many of the challenges faced by global governance actors in addressing climate change can be applied more broadly as problems for the global governance of the environment in a variety of issue areas.

Even from the very start of negotiations, global actors have had to overcome various hurdles in the creation of effective MEAs. One of the key challenges here is the question of ‘fairness’ in relation to the proposed agreements amongst state actors. For developing countries, concerns arise to how limits on certain actions, considered a danger to the environment, will hinder their development. For example, in relation to a call for the wider reduction of global greenhouse gases “at the Rio Summit in 1992, LDCs [Least Developed Countries] insisted that affluent nations ought to bear the full burden… since affluent nations after so many decades of industrial development, were more responsible for the existing build-ups of greenhouse gases and better able to bear the cost of reducing new emissions” (Rabkin and Sheenan 199, p. 21).

Effectively, the crux of the argument here is that MEAs based upon ‘reduction’ would, in the words of Chang, ‘kick away of the ladder’ for developing states1. Thus, it is argued that developed states hold an ‘environmental debt’ to the LDCs in order to ensure ‘global equity’ of environmental challenges. Authors like Steven Shirley go further, suggesting that through MEAs “we are seeing a new type of imperialism emerge, an imperialism based not on the acquisition of territory, but on a radical environmentalist agenda, an agenda that seeks to reserve the earth and its resources for the wealthy and elite, to freeze energy use at current levels, and to restrict nation states from exploiting indigenous resources for the benefit of their people” (Shirley and Soumin 2009, p.848).

As a practical policy example, LDCs were concerned that the Montreal Protocol, and its limits on CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) and other climate-altering gases, would unfairly impact them financially and their ability to develop industrially. Such uncertainty is clearly evident when we consider that “ was the only developing country producer of ODS [(Ozone Depleting Substances)] that signed the Protocol when it was first open to signature” (DeSombre 2006, pp. 109-112). Consequently, certain amendments have been made to circumvent these concerns and attempt to ‘balance the scales’ of environmental responsibility. For example, the establishment of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol in 1991 has helped to support LDCs financially and assist in the necessary technological transfer for the production, purchase and use of new refrigerants (Desombre 2006, pp. 109-112). Furthermore, in 1992, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol outlined that the outright elimination of CFC production and use would not apply to LDCs until 2010 (Desombre 2006, pp. 109-112).

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