Global Environmental Treaties

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From Spring 2011: Environmental Economics with Professor Nicola Tynan. Dickinson College. Anna-Lisa Noack, Andrea Wiley, Maggie Peeke.

International environmental cooperation has become progressively important with increased evidence of potential catastrophic disasters resulting from climate change and consequently the last forty years have seen a proliferation of international treaties, conventions, and environmental conferences. Due to the conflicting nature of economic growth and the protection of the earth’s resource, populations around the world have begun to question current anthropocentric economic models and to search for alternatives. However, agreement on the targets and means for environmental regulation has differed significantly. While developed countries account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, they have been largely unwilling to compromise current economic growth for potential future sustainability. Developing countries in contrast have been asked to forgo opportunities for economic growth by preventing deforestation, carbon pollution, resource extraction, water contamination etc. Economic and political inequalities between the Global North and the Global South have resulted in some of the greatest obstacles for international cooperation.

Call for Action: History of International Collaboration


The 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, were marked by an unwavering faith in the trickle-down effect of wealth and prosperity, and unprecedented economic growth. However, in the 1960’s, it became increasingly clear that economic growth was coming at a great cost; it was greatly stressing the earth leading to environmental degradation, detrimental to both the planet and humans, and climate change. With the publishing of works titled “The Population Bomb” by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, “Limits of Growth” by a group of professors at MIT, and “The Tragedy of the Commons” and the “Lifeboat Ethics” by Garrett Hardin, all in the 1960’s, the inseparable relationship between the economy and the environment was highlighted. To address these issues that far surpassed national boundaries, there was a general consensus that a space for international dialogue had to be opened to address the possibility for further development and the conservation of natural resources. International cooperation was deemed necessary and from the 1970’s on, the world has seen a proliferation in international discussions, conferences, and treaties.

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In 1972, The United National Environmental Program (UNEP) was established at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, this permanent institution was created to serve as a body to organize conferences and collect information of wide ranging natures concerning the environment.

In 1983, through the United Nations World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED), “Our Common Future” otherwise known as the “Brundtland Report”, was drafted and later published in 1987. It called for equity between generations realizing that there were limits to growth. The report defined sustainable developed as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Dresner, 35). While this definition would be revised many times in the years following, it has served as a standard basis for understanding the intersection of the environment and development. "In the words of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the commission’s chairman: ‘Environment is where we all live; and development is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable'” (UNEP)

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol, a revision of the 1885 Vienna Convention on the Depletion of the Ozone Layer, successfully passed a binding agreement to limit and even remove substances in the production of goods that deplete the ozone layer. It was extremely successful, was ratified by 196 states, and served as a basis for future negotiations on climate related issues.

In 1988, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the IPCC reviews research from scientists around the world studying the impact of humans on the environment and solutions for the prevention, adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency to climate change. It does not conduct its own research but rather collects and asses research that scientists submit on a voluntary basis. The panel holds a prominent role today in international climate change negotiations. (IPCC)

Rio Earth Sumit

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The first most prominent conference on climate change took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is referred to as the "Rio Earth Summit" or the “Earth Summit”. It was the first conference since the Cold War ended, leaving capitalism as the predominant economic model. “The agenda was no longer how capitalism and democracy could defeat totalitarian socialism, but how to get capitalism working in the Third World” (Rolston, 737). The world was no longer divided between the United States and Soviet Union but rather other polarities began to emerge: “North/South, rich/poor... Developed/developing countries… overpopulation/overconsumption… present/future generations, environment/economics” (Rolston, 737). It became increasing evident that the economic order was highly unequal and that to ensure the ability for countries to adopt a liberal economic structure, they needed to ensure a sustainable access to natural resources.

The conference highlighted that the intersection of the environment and economic growth was of special relevance in the relationship between the global North and the global South. “No theme was more repeated at the UNCED Conference than that the environment could not be saved without large amounts of aid from industrial to developing nations… But G-7 nations cannot legitimately tax their own citizens to donate monies to help the poor outside their boundaries… one response is: Produce! The other is: Share!” (Rolston 742-743). This issue has been central to most environmental treaties to date. To address this point of contention, the convention sought to help governments:

•“gather and share information on greenhouse gas emissions, national policies and best practices
•launch national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to expected impacts, including the provision of financial and technological support to developing countries
•cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the impacts of climate change. (UNFCCC)

The convention gave birth to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity(CBD), United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, and called for a plan of action notably called Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is a bottom-up approach to combating climate change. It initially sought to used the I=PAT equation (Impact is equal to Population times Affluence times Technology) to relieve stress on the environment. However, the question of population growth and especially contraception was omitted at the insistence of the Vatican. However, consumption remained central to the chagrin of most developed countries. It states that “This inequitable distribution of income and wealth results in excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments, which place immense stress on the environment. The poorer segments, meanwhile, are unable to meet food, health care, shelter and educational needs” (Rolston, 741). It was estimated that Agenda 21 would cost approximately $600 billion, which is the main reason for its failure.

The Convention on Biological Diversity remains a central force in discussing the importance of biological diversity for a sustained ecological system today and tomorrow. The world’s biological diversity is at risk today due to many factors such as climate change, agricultural industrialization, mono crops, and genetic modification. State sovereignty is highly controversial in the debate over genetic biodiversity and demonstrates again the unequal relationship between the North’s multinational corporations and the South’s vulnerable but highly diverse flora fauna.

The UNFCCC organized the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) in Berlin, Germany in 1995. Since then, the number of conferences have proliferated, hosting one each year. The UNFCCC is the central body in charge of organizing all of the international conferences discussing environmental issues.

Obstacles to International Cooperation

The international community has been faced with many obstacles to take action on climate change. These range from a lack of consensus on targets on means for pollution abatement and resource conservation, the balancing and potential trade-off of environmental sustainability and economic growth, a lack of incentives to reduce emissions, a disagreement on the benefits of emissions reductions, the lack of an international institution capable of enforcing and monitoring environmental regulation, the diversity of causes creating divergent priorities on what substances or markets to target, and most importantly, the lack of consensus on who will bear the greatest burden. It is important in these negotiations to take into consideration that underdeveloped countries lack the capital to reduce emissions and that developed countries do not necessarily have the resources or political will to compensate these poorer countries for their foregone economic development. Reducing resource use and implementing regulatory structures to prevent the emission of green house gases, has the potential to impede economic development. One of the largest failures in the effort to collaborate internationally on global change has been the US apathy to take an active role. Following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, US President H.W. Bush said that the “American way of life is not up for negotiation” (Dresner, 42).

The Kyoto Protcol

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The Kyoto Protocol is under the UNFCCC and was negotiated in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. The main goals were to fight global warming and greenhouse gases. Industrialized countries around the world agreed to an overall reduction in their emissions by 5% compared to the year 1990. For example, the target rate for the US is to reduce emissions by seven%, Japan six% and the European Union eight %. The focus lies on six greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs. In order for the protocol to be put into force there had to be enough countries accounting for 55% of 1990 carbon emissions to ratify, but because the US did not ratify it, Russia had to agree to join. Since Russia had a target rate of 0% from 1990 levels, it was of little expense to ratify, explaining their main motive to join. The goal of the protocol has been set to be met between the years 2008 and 2012. (MIT)

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the countries can meet their emission targets by utilizing three market-based mechanisms which are emissions trading, clean development mechanism, and joint implementation. Emissions trading allows countries that have emission units to spare to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets. Clean development mechanism refers to allowing a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets. Joint implementation allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another country, each equivalent to one ton of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target.(Clean Development Mechanism)

In order to meet the goals, there are several ways in which the countries are monitored. There are registry systems that track and record the transactions in Germany to make sure that every country is consistently following the rules. There is also a compliance system that ensures that each country is meeting their commitment levels by providing assistance when needed.

The United States involvement has played a large role since 1997. The United States signed the Protocol on November 12, 1998, but the Clinton Administration did not submit it for ratification. Then when the Bush Administration was in office in early 2001, the protocol was rejected. Recently, the Obama Administration endorsed joining the protocol and supports climate-change bills, but there has been no recent success. (United States Involvement)

The United States believes that there are fundamental flaws with the protocol and that there should be more participation from developing countries. Also, the US believes that the costs outweigh the benefits; the number of jobs that could be lost has potential to be damaging to the economy. Many scientists also believe that the percentage proposal for percentage that should be reduced will be ineffective toward the ultimate goal of stopping global warming; they also believe that either global warming is not an actual problem or that the measure of greenhouse gas emissions is not properly measured or accurate. Economists such as Nordhaus suggested that given the Protocol's large costs and small benefits, it might be better for it to be redesigned along the lines of a global carbon tax. (source Kyoto Protocol)

Beyond Kyoto

UNFCCC Anual Climate Change Conferences Since Kyoto

After America failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol, the mission for policy makers and environmentalists to develop a global climate treaty with which America would agree was evident.

Yearly conferences if the UNFCCC sought to discuss a binding, financially feasible, and effective agreement. All conferences that have taken place since Kyoto are listed below. A select number of conferences are explained in greater detail because their results are significant in progress since the Kyoto Protocol. (Meetings Archive)

1998 – COP 4, Buenos Aires, Argentina
1999 – COP 5, Bonn, Germany
2000 – COP 6, The Hague, Netherlands
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During this conference the hot topic was the controversy over the United States' proposal to allow credit for carbon "sinks" in forests and agricultural lands, thus satisfying a major proportion of the U.S. emissions reductions in this way. There were also disagreements over consequences for non-compliance by countries that did not meet their emission reduction targets; as well as difficulties in deciding how developing countries could meet their obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and obtain financial assistance to deal with the adverse effects of climate change.
2001 – COP 6 bis, Bonn, Germany
U.S. delegates declined the opportunity to participate and instead went as observers.
The agreements included:
1. Flexible Mechanisms: Allowed industrialized countries to financially support emissions reduction programs in developing countries “as an alternative to domestic emission reductions”
2. Carbon sinks: It was agreed that credit would be granted for vairous activities that store or absorb carbon from the atmosphere (such as including forest and cropland management) and re-vegetation. There would be “no over-all cap on the amount of credit that a country could claim for sinks activities”.
3. A Compliance action plan
4. Financing: (Explained below)
2001 – COP 7, Marrakech, Morocco::
Main decisions included:
•“Operational rules for international emissions trading among parties to the Protocol and for the CDM and joint implementation.
•A compliance regime that outlined consequences for failure to meet emissions targets but deferred to the parties to the Protocol, once it came into force, the decision on whether those consequences would be legally binding;
•A decision to review the adequacy of commitments that might lead to discussions on future commitments by developing countries.”
2002 – COP 8, New Delhi, India
The final declaration of COP 8 called for “efforts by developed countries to transfer technology and minimize the impact of climate change on developing countries.”
2003 – COP 9, Milan, Italy
2004 – COP 10, Buenos Aires, Argentina
COP10 discussed the progress made since the first Conference of the Parties 10 years prior.
2005 – COP 11/MOP 1, Montreal, Canada
As the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP-1) since the initial meeting of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, this was one of the largest-ever intergovernmental conferences on climate change.The event marked the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol.
Also, the Montreal Action Plan is an agreement hammered out at the end of the conference to "extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol beyond its 2012 expiration date and negotiate deeper cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions".
2006 – COP 12/MOP 2, Nairobi, Kenya
2007 – COP 13/MOP 3, Bali, Indonesia
2008 – COP 14/MOP 4, Poznań, Poland
At COP 14, delegates approved principles to finance a fund to help the poorest nations cope with the effects of climate change. They also agreed to incorporate forest protection into global efforts.
2009 – COP 15/MOP 5, Copenhagen, Denmark
With the United States Participation, the overall goal for the COP 15 was to establish an ambitious global climate agreement for the period after 2012 when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires. However, it was quickly realized that this was an overly ambitous goal and that reaching a climate change agreement would be difficult. The conference did not achieve a binding agreement for long-term action.
Instead, a 13-paragraph 'political accord' was negotiated by approximately 25 parties including US and China, but it was only 'noted' by the COP as it is considered an external document, not negotiated within the UNFCCC process.
The accord was notable in that it referred to a collective commitment by developed countries for new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, that will approach US$30 billion for the 2010–2012 period.
2010 – COP 16/MOP 6, Cancún, Mexico
2011 – COP 17/MOP 7, Durban, South Africa::The 2011 COP 17 is to be hosted by Durban, South Africa, from November 28 to December 9, 2011.

Cooperation and Solutions

It is clear that there are many factors that limit, or hinder, the progress of ameliorating the detrimental effects of global climate change. The primary limitation for many countries, mainly developing nations, is the FINANCES required to implement projects. However, monetary constraints are not the single factor; technological advanaces, education and outreach and cooperation with international organization also contribute to viable solutions.

The following list identifies solutions to various challenges faced at the conferences and in our world today. Cooperation and Support/Solutions

Financial mechanisms

Preventing climate change and building the capacity to cope with the consequences of our altering climate tremendously depend on financial support. Therefore the economics of climate change treaties have been delegated to the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as recognized in Article 11 of the Kyoto Protocol. This financial mechanism oversees the process of transferring financial resources from more developed countries to those that are less developed that require aid to accomplish their climate change goals. They also determine program priorities and eligibility criteria for funding.

Another such initiative was the development of The Adaptation Fund. This fund was established under the GEF “to finance concrete adaptation projects and programs” in developing countries “that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”. The fund’s board includes 16 member parties and projects include the Clean Development Mechanism project. Interestingly, the World Bank serves as a trustee to the fund which shows strong integration between the international organizations that are often disconnected on such issues.

Additionaly, The Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) “was established under the convention in 2001 to finance projects relating to: adaptation, technology transfer and capacity building; energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management; and economic diversification.” UNFCCC Fincancial Mechansims


The Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and a Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN) both “take all practicable steps to promote, facilitate and finance, as appropriate, the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and know-how to other Parties, particularly to developing countries to enable them to implement the provisions of the Convention”. Specific technologies that may contribute to the advancement of combatting climate change are identified at meetings and later encouraged by these parties. UNFCCC Technology

Education and Outreach

Education and outreach are also a main function of the UNFCCC through Article 6 of its charter and the Kyoto Protocol’s Article 10. The main objective of this initiative it to improve “awareness and understanding of climate change, and [to create] solutions to facilitate access to information” about changing climates. It is quite important to win public support for climate related policies and To encourage governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change” as they do. It is more likely that citizens will comply with regulations and taxes that limit pollution and encourage sustainable initiatives if they are are knowledgable about such issues. UNFCCC Education and Outreach

Cooperation with International Organizations

This component is particularly important because there must be cooperation with relevant international organizations, such as with scientific bodies, UN agencies and other conventions to facilitate the Convention process. The Convention itself calls on the COP to "seek and utilize … the services and cooperation of, and information provided by, competent international organizations and intergovernmental and non-governmental bodies". Cooperative decisions will facilitate the process of sustainable development and poverty eradication. UNFCCC Cooperation

How are we doing?

Both developed and developing nations seek to improve their emissions standards, yet various countries remain behind their targets. These graphs, however provide insight as to which countries are becoming leaders on climate policies and which are lagging. There are more developing countries are in the "green zone" than developed countries and although the US has "met" its target rate, it is still in the "red zone" as a developed country.

Key to Country Tracker

Developed Countries:

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Developing Countries:

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•Climate Change is a global public good that must be addressed by all countries in order for there to be effective improvements.

•There is still a lot to be done, but international climate change treaties have absolutely contributed to the amelioration of carbon reduction and sought to foster international and interdisciplinary cooperation.

•Financial commitment is one of the main challenges of the agreements that are not legally binding.

•Globally, reductions are not ideal, and a lot needs to be done still with developing countries, but new efforts to oversee the process of receiving funds may help.

•Both developed and developing nations must participate in the conferences and ratify treaties to produce true results, and perhaps once this happens we will see stronger commitments to prevent global climate change.


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