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Finding Global Environmental Solutions

Since 1972, the nations of the world have convened thousands of meetings, unleashed torrents of rhetoric, and signed hundreds of agreements on shared environmental concerns. Yet today, most of these agreements remain ineffective and incomplete, and dismay at their failings is widespread.

"The challenges of sustainability simply overwhelm the adequacy of our responses," wrote United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi Annan in his Millennium Report. "With some honourable exceptions, our responses are too few, too little and too late."

Ineffectiveness stems partly from the fragmentation of environmental policy making. Though the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created to smooth a path for international agreements, it has been too starved for budget, authority, and a coherent mission to coordinate them. Multilateral agreements have exploded in number to 220, by one UNEP count. Individual conferences of parties and scattered secretariats have often pursued separate agendas as if isolated from each other -- or in competition. Other UN bodies, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have their own share of the environmental policy turf.

The search is on for a solution.

Some observers have called for creating an influential new body that some call a Global Environment Organization or GEO. It would oversee and coordinate environmental agreement secretariats, supporters say, and serve as a global advocate on environmental matters.

Others call for upgrading UNEP so to serve as such a global environmental advocate and coordinator.

A third proposal is for the organizations that implement environmental agreements to coordinate their work in clusters or alliances, with or without external leadership. Officials overseeing agreements with similar or overlapping subject matter could work together more closely, this proposal holds, possibly even sharing offices or coordinating negotiations of new protocols.

Finally, a few observers call for combining these approaches -- tinkering with the mechanics of agreements to make them operate more openly and efficiently.

We cannot predict which way the world will go, but we can explore here some criticisms of the current structure and some of the alternatives that have been proposed to improve global environmental governance.

The flowering of modern environmental law began in the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Since 1960, the environmental and human health impacts of industrial development had begun to attract broad attention in the developed nations. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had sounded alarms that pesticides were driving some birds toward extinction. Mercury had poisoned entire communities in Japan. London smog had sent hundreds of wheezing people to hospitals. As nations started to expand their environmental laws and regulations, the Stockholm Conference laid the foundation for a similar expansion in the international field. It encouraged states to protect the environment through international agreements, endorsed their right to compensation for pollution from other nations, and without using the phrase, asserted the importance of achieving what has become known as sustainable development.

The Stockholm Conference established a new organization to pursue these goals, but did so in an ambiguous way. At the conference's direction, the UN founded UNEP, but gave it a relatively small budget and general authority to catalyze international environmental agreements. The next two decades were busy times for environmental lawmakers and diplomats. The U.S. and most other industrialized economies enacted statutes to protect clean air, clean water, safe drinking water, endangered species, and the like. At the international level, with help from UNEP, nations began to negotiate agreements to respond to environmental problems. The top concerns were saving endangered species of animals and plants and their habitats and industrial pollution across borders.

In the 1980s and 1990s, agreements broadened to deal with global issues, such as climate change and biodiversity, which proved much more complicated and tougher to fix. The players expanded too. Civil society groups such as Greenpeace, multinational corporations, and regional and global trade organizations acquired influential voices in international environmental discussions.

But even though environmental concerns have flowed into the mainstream of international policy dialogues, the results have been disappointing to almost everyone. Though some international environmental agreements have made strong progress, many remain empty shells, lacking agreement on the problem, the solution, or the means to achieve it. They have piled up without a blueprint or guiding architect. And beneath a veneer of rhetoric, environmental considerations tend to remain secondary, at best, in multinational finance and trade policy.

James Gustave Speth, the former administrator of the UN Development Programme who is now dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says many multinational environmental agreements have done little to avert continuing environmental damage. In the Montreal Protocol, the international community did well to address the human-induced threat to the global ozone layer, he says. But aside from that, he asserts, "We haven't done anything very well."

Though most observers say some other international agreements have achieved varying levels of success, many share Speth's dismay that more has not been accomplished. In his Millennium Report, the UN's Annan wrote that "we have been plundering our children's future heritage to pay for environmentally unsustainable practices in the present." The UN, he declared, was failing to ensure "the freedom of future generations to sustain their lives on this planet."

Stockholm: Environmental Governance Dawns

One reason why environmental policy authority became a hodge-podge is that its growth was unanticipated. As international environmental law began to grow at Stockholm, "Global environment wasn't on most people's radar screen," recalls one U.S. trade negotiator who was present. Countries initially focused on their own environmental problems. And at the UN General Assembly, member nations were determined to retain sovereign control over their internal environmental policies and resources, thus giving UNEP a small budget and vague mission that prevented it from playing a substantively forceful role.

Gradually, as awareness of cross-border pollution grew, nations worked out agreements with neighboring states. Starting in the 1970s, states worked out a series of treaties, conventions, and protocols for controlling pollution and similar problems that crossed national boundaries. At first, these responded to regional damages. Sulfur dioxide emissions from Ohio power plants fell out as acid rain, not just in New York, but also in Quebec. Pollution of the Columbia River in Canada flowed south into the U.S. Fish stocks straddled international boundaries, setting off preemptive races to catch them. International trade in rare wildlife proved more than any one nation could stop. Such problems called for bilateral or regional agreements, and they blossomed.

In the 1980s and 1990s, new threats emerged that defied control at the national or regional level, and environmental problems marched onto a global stage. Certain chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) molecules proved to be thinning the earth's stratospheric ozone layer, which shields the globe from deadly ultraviolet radiation. These molecules continue doing damage for decades, and their impact is global, regardless of whether they come from an air conditioner in New York or a refrigerator in Shanghai. Persistent organic pollutants, such as dioxins and the highly toxic insulator polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), circled the globe on winds, traveling from Mexico to the Arctic in less than a week. Trade in pesticides and hazardous wastes spread contamination of land and waters internationally.

Today, most scientists believe that carbon from burning fossil fuels is causing global climate change: raising temperatures and sea levels, breeding more violent tropical storms, threatening low-lying coastal areas with more frequent flooding, speeding desertification in some areas, and threatening to change regional climate faster than some species can adjust or migrate. Impacts on human health are worrisome too. For example, climate change is likely to extend the reach of tropical diseases into temperate zones.

Even formerly local or regional problems have begun taking on global significance. The burning of Indonesia's tropical forests in the late 1990s, for instance, not only shrouded the southwest Pacific archipelago under a haze that caused human illness and deaths, but also depleted the global storehouse of biological diversity -- the leading source of new drugs and crop vigor -- and boosted the atmosphere's carbon dioxide load, hence its rate of climate change.

The Brundtland Commission's 1987 report "Our Common Future" endorsed the then relatively new concept of sustainable development and tied it to protection of the rights of future generations to provide for their needs. Though wildlife, soil, and water were once thought of as national or regional resources, science has documented depletion problems on undreamed-of scales. One recent study of nearly 250,000 plant species found that one of eight is at risk of extinction, while one quarter of the world's mammal species and a tenth of its birds are said to be threatened with extinction. Around the world, freshwater aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate. Soil erosion threatens the earth's capacity to feed its still-growing population. Coastal pollution and habitat destruction in both fresh and salt water threatens to deplete or eliminate fish stocks. Almost 70 percent of ocean fisheries are either fully exploited or overfished, and some rich ones, such as the Grand Banks off eastern North America, have all but collapsed.

Globalization Breaks Barriers

Globalization of commerce has fueled the economic engine that is exacerbating many of these problems and highlighted the need for global solutions.

Today's economies are dominated by multinational corporate behemoths and global markets. Since 1945, the value of international trade has exploded 50-fold to approximately $4 trillion per year. Bigger, cheaper shipping systems and lower trade barriers enable a company to buy materials in one country, ship them to a second, low-wage country for assembly, and distribute them globally for sale. Even billing and record-keeping services are being shifted from country to country.

Companies can vote with their feet against efforts by nations to require higher environmental protections and resource safeguards, as well as working standards and wages. When the U.S. shrank public timber sales in the northern Rocky Mountains to protect threatened ecosystems and species, Boise Cascade Corp. replaced its sawmills in the northern Rockies with new ones in Mexico and South America. Concerns about species loss and erosion moved south with them.

Global capital is even more mobile, flooding and draining countries with suddenness that in 1997 brought some Asian economies to the brink of financial collapse. These flows show little sensitivity to their environmental or social consequences.

Post-War Institutions Meet Environment and Globalization

With global environmental problems heavily influenced by capital markets, environmental concerns could no longer be separated from international lending and trade, but multilateral banking and trade organizations were not set up to deal with environmental issues. In the past, they have tended to dismiss these issues as needless constraints to trade and development. Getting them to give serious heed to environmental impacts has become one of the top priorities of several environmental groups.

To be fair, these institutions have faced difficult adjustments. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), for instance, was founded in the aftermath of World War II to help countries defend fixed currency rates. The U.S. ended the fixed-rates era when it decoupled from gold in the early 1970s, and most developed countries have followed, allowing their currency value to fluctuate in international markets. The IMF has evolved into a lender of last resort for countries on the brink of financial collapse.

The World Bank was established to supply capital to economies that were unable to attract it from private sources. But it has seen private capital flows dwarf its own impact in the most robust emerging economies.

"The economic environment in which the founders expected the IMF and the Bank to function no longer exists," notes a recent report to Congress from its International Financial Institution Advisory Committee.

For more than a decade, critics have pummeled the IMF, World Bank, and other multilateral banks for paying little heed to the environmental impacts of their actions. Construction of big dams, expansion of roads and plantations in undeveloped forests, and the building of fossil fuel power plants have drawn protests from environmental groups and the U.S. Congress.

The World Bank has made significant strides toward disclosing and considering environmental impacts of its projects, yet critics argue that the change is often superficial, and that actual lending practices haven't changed much. The U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs said recently that it "continues to be disappointed that overall the World Bank Group has failed to shift its lending portfolios toward environmentally sustainable economic development."

"AID (U.S. Agency for International Development) data show a decrease in lending for environmental projects since 1994, while projects with potentially irreversible environmental impacts continue to dominate the portfolio," the panel said.

Despite new rules, the World Bank reported that more than half of its projects fail to prove sustainable. Critics charge that the Bank continues to approve projects that fail to meet the Bank's own guidelines for local participation and protection of human rights and the environment. One example: the Chinese proposal to resettle 600,000 Han Chinese in western Tibet won initial World Bank loan approval, despite concern about the project's environmental consequences and impact on indigenous people. Only after the Bank's inspection panel confirmed the criticisms did new questions about the loan emerge, and China withdrew its application for a World Bank loan.

Many environmental critics question the Bank's investments in refineries and fossil fuel power plants, despite their contributions to global warming, with little thought given to investment alternatives such as energy efficiency, conservation, or renewable power.

"There's no global policy coherence," complains David Hunter, professor of international law at American University, and co-author of the textbook, International Environmental Law and Policy.

Overall, the Bank draws mixed reviews. "There has been progress, but it is slow and uncertain," says Frances Seymour, director of institutions and governance at the World Resources Institute.

Ironically, the World Bank is one of the better international institutions in opening its process to scrutiny and conferring with private sector organizations, including civil society groups and industries. The IMF has made less progress toward opening its lending process to outside review and environmental considerations. It is "ten years behind the World Bank," says Seymour. And perhaps the most closed of all the international institutions is the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Trade Trumps National Law

WTO grew out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and retains much of its closed structure. GATT was formed more than two decades before environmental issues dawned. Knocking down barriers to international trade is its mission, and it has shown little sensitivity or expertise on trade-related environmental issues.

Twice in the 1990s, one of the two organizations overruled U.S. provisions designed to protect dwindling species in the seas. In 1991 and 1994, GATT panels struck down a ban on tuna caught without safeguards to protect dolphins. The WTO later ruled against a U.S. embargo on shrimp from nations that fail to require shrimp fishermen to use turtle exclusion devices, which enable threatened sea turtles to escape drowning in shrimp nets. In both cases, the trade organizations called the restrictions unlawful non-tariff barriers because they regulated how an item was harvested or produced.

American University's Hunter says the rulings reflect a mindset at WTO: "Out of the box it takes the position that trade is more important than environmental concerns."

The decisions alarmed environmental groups, who feared that trade rulings could speed a race to the bottom if international law and agreements to lower trade barriers are to override domestic environmental laws and regulations. They worried that countries with the least environmental safeguards could break down environmental rules and barriers to their products in importing nations. Indeed, tension between domestic environmental legislation and international trade agreements has intensified under the WTO-led international trade regime. Since domestic environmental laws and regulations are driven by national sentiments, and multilateral agreements are the results of international negotiations and compromise, it is not surprising that the latter are generally less stringent.

Many WTO-watchers think it will bend to the gales of criticism. "It's going to change the way it does business," predicts Yale professor Speth.

But so far, the organization's structure has insulated it from pressure from individual governments or other outside groups. The U.S., for instance, wields no veto in WTO, as it had in the GATT, nor can the U.S. Congress use the power of the purse string to demand environmental issues get a better hearing, as it did with the World Bank. WTO is not dependent on U.S. funding. Private sector organizations are neither allowed to participate in WTO meetings nor obtain much information about its deliberations. In the age of the Internet and fiber-optic communications, WTO seems a relic of the slow minuet of government-to-government diplomacy.

Lack of Consensus -- and the U.S. Role

In part, the failure to negotiate and implement effective solutions to global problems stems from an inability of nations to agree on the nature of a problem or the appropriate cure.

The Biodiversity Convention written in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, for instance, encourages nations to conserve biodiversity, but contains no clear mandate to preserve the globe's richest and most endangered storehouse of species, its tropical forests. Scientists, the timber industry, and its critics have failed to agree on a prescription for sustainable forestry.

Negotiation of international agreements has been complicated by deep distrust between the developed countries of the North and the less developed South.

Some developing countries look to their native forests as potential sites of economic development in forestry or agriculture and resent efforts by developed countries to preserve them. To encourage conservation of natural habitats at some short-term sacrifice, parties at the 1992 biodiversity summit conference at Rio de Janeiro called for industrialized nations to double their foreign aid to less-developed countries to finance sustainable development. But more than eight years later, developed countries have reduced their aid to the developing world. In 1997 Speth, then UN Development Programme administrator, complained that "rich countries have failed utterly to keep their end of the bargain."

And even among the rich, developed countries, the United States' image has changed dramatically. The perception has grown that far from being a leader on environmental agreements, the U.S. is an obstacle.

Two decades after strongly supporting the Stockholm Convention, the U.S. fought to weaken the biodiversity convention in Rio and has yet to ratify it. The U.S. withdrew from the Law of the Sea agreement and abstained from the Ottawa Convention on Antipersonnel Mines and the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court. It has consistently fought against entrenchment of the precautionary principle in international law, such as in the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants that was negotiated in December 2000 and other multilateral environmental agreements.

The U.S. also failed to meet its year 2000 goal for reducing carbon dioxide emissions or to ratify the Kyoto agreement calling for it to cut emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 level within about a decade. Most other developed countries shared its inability to meet or ratify the Kyoto targets, but Europe appeared far more willing than the U.S.

Consider some of the recent comments on U.S. positions:

  • During the year 2000 sixth conference of parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in The Hague, Alden Meyer, director of government relations with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "The bottom line result of the U.S. negotiating position is that virtually no pollution reduction measure would need to be undertaken in the United States."

  • Jennifer Morgan, director of climate change campaign at World Wildlife Fund (U.S.) concurred. "While many governments want to do the right thing," she said, "we remain extremely concerned that the U.S. and others are negotiating a do- nothing treaty that does not require any real reductions at home."

  • Many Europeans deplore the U.S. position, pursuant to a Senate resolution, that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless developing countries also adopted binding emissions reductions. Former British Environment Secretary John Gummer, noting that the United States is responsible for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, called it unjust for the U.S. to expect poorer countries to share the burden of stemming greenhouse gases just as their economies begin to expand. "You cannot have global solutions without global justice," said Gummer, a Conservative party member of parliament.

  • The Panos Institute, a London-based global think tank on development and environmental issues, scolded the U.S. in a paper on climate change negotiations: "Though it led the establishment of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific assessment organization) it has hesitated or even obstructed other stages of progress towards accepting binding emission reduction targets; in 1992 then president George Bush threatened not to attend the Earth Summit in Rio if the convention included any binding commitments to stabilizing greenhouse gases. In the end, a weak convention was the price that had to be paid to bring in the U.S."

  • Europeans are quick to concede that effective action is impossible without U.S. cooperation. "From a technical point of view it is possible that the Kyoto Protocol enters into force without the U.S., but from a political point of view, this is not very feasible," says Helmut Hojesky, acting head of the European Union delegation.

  • "The perception is that the U.S. is always a problem," said Konrad Von Moltke, adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Sustainable Development and at the World Wildlife Fund, U.S.

  • "As world politics becomes increasingly institutionalized," wrote Stewart Patrick of New York University, "perceived United States unilateralism is likely to become more controversial."

Although U.S. position in multilateral environmental agreement negotiations has disappointed many, it has shown considerable commitment to emphasize environment-related discussions in the international trade arena. Driven by domestic popular demand, the U.S. banned imports of tuna and shrimp caught without safeguards to protect dolphins and sea turtles, included environmental groups to sit in international trade policy advisory groups, and recently introduced a set of environmental guidelines for international trade negotiations.

Next section: The Evolving Context of Global Environmental Governance

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New World, Old Order?: Front Page
Finding Global Environmental Solutions
The Evolving Context of Global Environmental Governance
Greater Transparency and Participation by Civil Society
Functions Needed for Environmental Governance: What Functions Do You Think Are Important?
Future Paths: A Look at Four Leading Concepts

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