Apr 2, 2008
Improving environmental treaties
With the latest round of international climate change talks currently taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, it seems timely to report on the views of Lawrence Susskind, professor of urban and environmental planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, on how to improve the environmental treaty-making process.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston in February, Susskind explained how he believes that the only international environmental treaty to be truly successful is the Montreal Protocol.
"There is no systematic 'rule book' for creating global environmental treaties," he said. "The system is still relatively undeveloped so it’s no surprise we don’t get the best environmental treaties we can."
Getting a country to actually sign up to a treaty is just the start of the problem. Even if a nation does sign it may not ratify the treaty. Or if it does ratify, it may not carry out the actions it has promised to undertake, for example changing national legislation, assigning responsibility for solving a problem or providing enough funding. The way the system is set up at the moment, politicians can get credit for signing a treaty without actually having to ratify it or take any action. And a change in leadership once the treaty has been signed may lead to it being ignored.
Susskind suggested one solution could be to allow countries to sign a treaty only once they’ve shown they have national legislation dealing with the problem in place. "It takes 10 years to write the treaty, it’s not like you’d have to rush to do it," he said.
There can also be a clash between science and politics. It would help to have more meaningful timetables and targets in a treaty connected to actually solving the problem rather than politics. According to Susskind: "The system is not designed to take science into account so there are no rules." The science panel within a treaty regime may contain non-scientists or the science may be politicized by, for example, the panel containing an equal split of scientists from the developed and developing world.
While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was an exception to this politicization of science, it’s not feasible to create an IPCC-like entity for every single treaty. Susskind believes there’s a need to create a more general science base for environmental treaty making, perhaps run by a "global civil service staffed by scientists", and for a new strategy to ensure both science and policy are given their due.
Another issue is that there isn’t generally a system for monitoring compliance with a treaty or for applying any penalties to countries who don’t comply. This results in few incentives for countries to comply. Susskind proposes the assignment of responsibility for monitoring treaty compliance using technology such as satellites. He’d also like to see the provision of financial incentives for nations to ratify and comply with treaties, perhaps making environmental treaty compliance a condition for technology sharing, loan forgiveness, membership of the World Trade Organization, and global financial support from organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. And a small international tax on energy production could provide revenue to back up these incentives, particularly for developing countries.
With environmental problems, time is crucial. And creating an international environmental treaty isn’t a speedy process. "Certain problems if you don’t act on them soon enough will become too large to correct," said Susskind, who believes that if the world can’t get scientific certainty in time on some issues it may be too late.
"The precautionary principle says you should start to work on certain treaties and be ready to move as the science becomes more certain," he said. "We won’t know the right thing to do forever, so we can take small steps now, monitor and provide constant corrections." For example, a treaty could have three yearly-goals and its regime could be tightened as more becomes known about the issue. It could also incorporate contingent commitments – "if you’re right then ... but if I’m right then ..." – to avoid the need for countres to agree on who’s right about the future.
"Bringing civil society to the negotiating table" by involving non-governmental organizations, businesses and other organizations in the development, monitoring and enforcement of treaties could also be beneficial. For example at the Bali meeting, advocacy groups represented some small island states in their absence.
As climate change and other environmental problems become increasingly urgent, let’s hope that the next round of environmental treaties are up to the job.