Or why the weakness of International Environmental Governance is a question of power
The politics of the environment face a paradox. While climate damaging emmisions and the use of resources globally continue to rise, solutions are also starting to become mainstream. Unlike twenty years ago, we know today that renewable energy, for example, is not a pipe dream but a fast growing global industry. Indeed, solutions for most if not all envirtonmental ills are available and affordable, and investments in clean technologies are rising. At the same time, development in both North and South remains deeply unsustainable.
One key reason for this paradox is that globally, environmental governance systems are not as strong as they needs to be. Even where governments do promote sustainable practices, such as the use of renewables, they fail to put a decisive end to unsustainable practises. An economy based on nuclear energy, oil and coal, genetic engineering, toxic chemicals or the overexploitation of our forests and seas, however, will never be sustainable – and will not be able to provide prosperity for all in the long term.
Too many governments North and South have effectively been captured by corporate players benefitting from the destructive status quo. They are putting the interests of a few above the interests of the many. Asia Pulp and Paper, for example, has been able to undermine effective forest protection in Indonesia, while Volkswagen has fought against the climate protection rules in Europe and the US, to name but two. The finance industry, furthermore, has succeeded in making the taxpayer pay for its bad decisions and is stopping governments from effectively regulating global financial markets.
For the environment not to be overexploited, and people to prosper in the long term, governments must put regulations in place that secure the public good and give the institutions tasked to implement these regulations the tools to do so. It sounds simple, but it does mean changing some fundamentals in the way we govern our planet.
It is important to remember that global regulations with teeth are not impossible. The World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, can impose punitive tariff fines on countries flouting it´s rules. So while the negotiations to further liberalize global trade remain stalled, many disuptes are being taken tot he WTO as the existing powers oft he global trade institution persist – and the WTO remains the most powerful global governance instrument available.
In contrast, environmental and sustainable development governance is not effective. Experts agree that while there are many institutions dealing with social agendas or the environment, they are not coordinated, lack adequate powers, and are much weaker than economic and trade bodies. Bodies such as the UN Environment Programme can only plead, coach and capacity build, where the World Trade Organization can impose punitive tariff measures on those breaking their rules.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was created as a compromise at the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment in 1972. Many attempts have been made since then to strengthen it. But while we have a UN agency even for tourism, UNEP remains a mere Programme, with very few offices around the world.
Similarly, the main international forum established in 1992 to deal with “sustainable development” is the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The CSD was tasked to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21, the main outcome document of the Rio Earth Summit in1992. Sadly the CSD, which convened for two weeks every year since Rio, was never more than a talking shop. It could do nothing to actually deliver sustainable development. At best, it has been at times a forum where new ideas have been shared.
At the Rio+20 UN Summit in June 2012, governments buried the CSD and pledged to replace it with a new „high level“ body on sustainable development. As things stand however, there is no guarantee that that new body will be any more powerful than the CSD was. The risk of it being merely another talking shop is very real.
Rio+20 also failed to upgrade the UN Environment Programme to specialised agency status – a UN Environment Agency - which would formally upgrade it within the global UN structure (a move which has been under discussion globally for decades). The world therefore still lacks a global authority on the environment, especially one that has the power to monitor the implementation of global environmental agreements – and to sanction those failing to live up to their promises. However, UNEP was at least strengthened at Rio+20. Following the Rio decisions, the UN General Assembly in December 2012 finally agreed, for example, that UNEP will receive “secure, stable and increased financial resources from the regular budget of the UN“.This at last ends a sad state of affairs, where UNEP needed to pass around a ´begging bowl´ each year to secure vital funds for environmental protection. It was also welcome news that Brazil and China both used the occasion of Rio+20 to pledge significant additional sums to strengthen UNEP. This is recognition of the important role UNEP plays in emerging economies – and could possibly be a sign of countries such as Brazil and China starting to see the environment as an area where it is worth exerting „soft power“ globally – and may be even, at times, take the lead. This will be an area of environmental governance worth watching in coming years. Will Turkey take a similar approach and start contributing to UNEP more pro-actively?
For sustainability to thrive, we need much more than a strengthening and upgrading of existing institutions such as UNEP: We need global rules that change power dynamics and investment incentives. Environmental regulations (including Multilateral Environmental Agreements, MEAs) need much stronger sanction mechanisms. They need the ability to effectively penalise countries such as Canada, for example, who simply ignore the commitments they made under the Kyoto Protocol (on climate change). Global rules on corporate accountability and liability are also a must in order to ensure that damaging people and the environment is no longer a free for all, but has real costs. At the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002, governments acknowledged the need for global rules for global corporations. At Rio+20, however, they only called for slight – and voluntary – improvements in the way that corporations report their social and environmental impacts. A binding global instrument that ensures full liability for any social or environmental damage global corporations cause therefore stays high on any governance reform list. Indeed, it is a fundmental test of whether governments want to set rules for people and planet or abandon responsibility to a free market focussed on short-term gain.
Sustainable development cannot become a reality in a world in which short-term bets by the financial markets are all-powerful. Strong controls of financial markets are therefore an integral part of the global governance reform required. New fiscal instruments, such as a Financial Transaction Tax, need to be adopted to slow harmful speculation and deliver much needed finance for development and environmental protection. A complete social and environmental review of the global trade system is also long overdue.
So why are these steps not being taken? That´s where we have to return to the question of power. Post Hurricane Sandy, even the vast majority of Americans are supportive of effective climate action. The fossil fuel industry, however, has captured too many governments in North and South. On Capitol Hill, just like in Caracas, Brasilia, Ankara or New Delhi, the oil, coal and gas industries rule, not the people. Even measures like cutting fossil fuel subsidies are therefore unable to find majorities. Governments, for now, fear Shell and Exxon more than their average citizen.
Achieving effective environmental governance is therefore above all about changing power relations. It is about building a movement powerful enough to force governments to act in the public interest. It is about building alliances between grassroots initiatives and global organizations. It is about making the argument for change as much on the street as it is in the corridors of power.
Only if we change power relations, will we be able to transform global governance systems and get environmental governance bodies with real teeth, comparable to those of the WTO. The current lack of teeth of environmental bodies is a symptom of environmental interests not being strong enough - yet - within the global political system. No expert commission or think tank proposal will be able to change much until these power fundamentals are addressed.