Current Global Environmental Issues

Image courtesy of the UNFCCC, via FlickrThe global biosphere acts as a single system, where environmental degradation and other environmental impacts of each country affect the whole: it is not enough to limit our environmental governance to the state level only. Such a single system makes a coordinated response from a group of countries a necessity for reversing the current global environmental decline. Global environmental governance (GEG) is a concept in environmental policy that advocates sustainable development as the supreme consideration for managing all human activity. GEG challenges are substantial. It is important to note that to find consensus among countries in the international arena about what sustainable development means – how to finance such sustainable development and what institutions and international laws are required to do in response to environmental issues – is an urgent task.

The interconnectedness of the global environment and the interdependence of countries are beyond dispute. A common action is essential to protect the environment and climate, to manage its marine resources and preserve biodiversity. The need for a coherent GEG is clear, but constructing such governance in the face of many competing national interests has proven to be difficult.

The difficulty of constructing GEG is made greater as the current international system of environmental governance is in complete anarchy with no central authority to control and craft strong environmental protections at the global level. This system consists of three components. One component is a collection of intergovernmental organisations such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) that deal with coordinating policy on environment at the global scale. These UN agencies are charged with creating a global agenda to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.

The second component is the framework of international law that has evolved over the last couple of decades. The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants are treaties among countries that create some sort of GEG. They are legally-binding and each country is responsible to take care of its own territory.

The third component is financing mechanisms to keep the treaties’ commitments going in order to increase national efforts toward sustainable development and to back UN agencies that coordinate and carry the efforts for environmental protection. The World Bank, for instance, is a more general financing mechanism which provides general development activities with environmental components. Other financing mechanisms such as the Global Environment Facility specifically target environmental activities instead of general development.

The current international system of environmental governance is anarchic, which shows the difficulty in creating an effective cooperation among countries, even in environmental issues that almost all agree require common action. From legislation to regulation to enforcement, all actions are taken by individual countries. Thankfully, most countries have decidedly accepted the environment as a significant issue in international relations, crafting environmental treaties and agreements that promise cooperation in protecting biodiversity and preventing climate change.

Nevertheless, the current international system of environmental governance has fallen short in many respects. It is broken into pieces, with a host of policy organisations, treaties, financing mechanisms, and implementation projects whose efforts are poorly coordinated and sometimes overlapping. The bureaucracy is immense and dysfunctional. There is a strong sense that current approaches to global sustainable development are ineffective. In many respects, international environmental negotiations produce agreements with ambitious goals, but there were no realistic means of implementing or financing such objectives. These weaknesses and regional divisions limit the capacity of cooperation among countries to respond to even the most pressing environmental issues.

Just last month foreign ministers at the annual UN climate change conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, expressed shock at the election of Mr Trump. He has called global warming a hoax created by China and vowed to withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement (ratified by hundred countries so far), which could as a result cause severe damage to climate diplomacy. Some of the countries called for retaliation to compel compliance of the United States. Instead, China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter and the second biggest economy in the world, is poised to step forward to lead on climate change policy.

It is important to note that the current GEG is a work in progress. Environmental concern as public policy is a recent phenomenon and has come into being in the last few decades since the environment began to be a global concern, and it continues to gradually evolve.

The UNEP has contributed to the development of legal regimes such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention to Combat Diversification, the Montreal Protocol, and the recent Paris Agreement. One weakness stems from the impossibility of coordinating such a complex system with a set of actors who create gaps in policy-making and competing decision-making structures. Such an issue occurs when UNEP is in theory the lead UN agency for policy coordination but in practice its mandate overlaps with those of other UN agencies such as the UNDP. Thus such an agency has neither real authority to set the agenda nor the resources to play a role in the system regarding global environmental issues.

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