Strengthening the Global Environmental Treaty System: Despite the Huge Media Attention Environmental Treaties Receive, the System of Making and Implementing Them Is Barely Functioning
Susskind, Lawrence, Issues in Science and Technology
The global environmental treaty-making system--the set of mechanisms by which countries fashion agreements to promote more sustainable development--is not working very well. More than 400 multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change now exist, and new treaties are continually being added that address a wide range of problems, including the loss of endangered species and habitats, increasing levels of ocean dumping, the unregulated transshipment of hazardous substances, and desertification. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the problems these treaties are intended to address are being corrected. There is a variety of reasons why the "system" isn't working and a number of ways it could be strengthened.
The system is actually quite undeveloped. There are few if any rules regarding the number of countries that must sign a treaty before it can come into force. The penalties for failing to meet treaty obligations are rarely made explicit, and the extent to which countries that have not signed a treaty are legally bound by the standards that the rest of the world has adopted is still a matter of speculation. Enforcement of global environmental treaties is practically nonexistent. The administrators of treaty regimes are, as Abram and Antonia Chayes point out in their book The New Sovereignty, forced to seek "compliance without enforcement." In a strange turn of events, elected political leaders can get credit domestically for signing a global agreement even if they have no intention of seeking ratification of the agreement from their Parliament or Congress. Environmental treaty regimes are administered by a series of ad hoc secretariats, not by a single United Nations (UN) agency and depend entirely on funding donated by a handful of the countries they are supposed to be regulating. Finally, scientific input into the writing of each treaty and the monitoring of implementation efforts are entirely catch-as-catch-can.
There are a number of ways in which the treaty-making system could be improved. Four in particular stand out: increasing the role of "unofficials" in treaty drafting and implementation, setting more explicit adaptive management targets, offering financial incentives for treaty compliance, and organizing regional science advisory panels to enhance the level of scientific advice available to all nations.
Key environmental treaties
Treaties or multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are the products of negotiations among groups of countries. One of the most successful is the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (and the follow-up Montreal Protocol). It reversed the rate at which stratospheric ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are emitted into the atmosphere by banning them. On the other hand, the Biodiversity Convention and the Climate Change Convention, which were signed by more than 150 countries at the 1992 Earth Summit, have not even begun to reverse the growing loss of biodiversity or the threat of global warming. Other hoped-for treaties, including some such as the Global Forest Protection Treaty that have been under discussion for decades, have not yet emerged.
For many treaties, the problem is that the goals set are so modest that even if implemented, they would not reverse the trend that triggered the problem-solving effort. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants seek to slow the rate at which a resource is lost or pollution occurs, but under the best of circumstances, they won't be sufficient to reverse or mitigate the adverse effects that have already occurred.
Other MEAs have simply not been ratified by key countries. The United States, for instance, has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, or the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes. …