Faced with impending climate catastrophe, the Paris Agreement has set the necessary global goals, but implementation is falling far short.
“The Paris Agreement is wonderful, but to put it into practice is another thing. To protect the common good, we need effective and legitimate global environmental governance.”
These are the words of Doctor Arthur Dahl, President of the International Environment Forum and a contributing expert to The Climate Governance Commission.
Together with Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, Associate Professor of Wageningen University, The Netherlands, he is preparing a report on how a Global Environment Agency (GEA) or a similar institution could be created, an institution that would address the challenges of global climate governance and other interlinked environmental problems that require a global approach at the scale of the problem.
Polycentric and diverse
“We are envisioning a GEA as part of a polycentric governance system. The GEA provides the necessary constitutional common rules with the multitude of public (regional, national, local) governance arenas to enable innovation and diversity linked to cultural, social and legal contexts, as well as environmental conditions and ecosystems at different places. Detailed policies at the local and national level will only benefit from diversity, and it will empower more engagement from across communities,” says Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen.
Both of the authors think that a GEA (or similar institution) is the way forward. Arthur Dahl calls today’s situation institutional anarchy, because of the current governance gap, making it possible for multinational corporations and other actors to pursue short term self interest, undermining the common good:
“We don’t have governance at the global level that we accept as we do at the national level. There is no way to pass laws that are binding, there is no court that can rule in binding cases — it is all voluntary. No matter how much good is done by those who want to make a change, it could be neutralised by others by ignoring or going in the other direction.”
Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen continues:
“In a treaty such as the Paris Agreement there are of course a variety of reasons why countries don’t meet their obligations. It is not always a lack of will, it could be lack of resources and financial means. It is also an issue of building societies where you have enough trust, where there is rule of law and no corruption.”
Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen explains that the upcoming report will look at the possible functions of a GEA:
“What is the necessary scope of global governance and what is the national mandate in order to make the whole system work?”
She also mentions an important hindrance: “There is a kind of taboo in discussing this properly: national sovereignty. It is a holy grail for many states and blocks all kinds of reason- and efficiency-based arguments.”
Arthur Dahl fills in: “We don’t have national sovereignty with climate change or the economy–the world is too globalised. Instead what we need is protection of national autonomy to allow governments to find many different ways of meeting agreed global goals, according to their own culture, their environmental situation and so on.”
In that context the role of a GEA could include determining those common goals and by what principles, for example, to share climate responsibility, as Arthur Dahl points out: “How do you allocate the responsibility, how much in terms of historical contributions, or on a per capita basis, or related to the weight of the economy? Or, if you export your greenhouse gas production to poor countries and then import the actual products, to whom do you allocate those emissions?”
To set up a new institution takes time, no matter at what level, national or global. What would be the first quick steps towards a GEA? Arthur Dahl says that important steps can be taken in parallel: “Look at what is easiest and fastest to start working with, find the balance of short term operational rules and long term constitutional changes, and build as strong alliances as possible to work on both levels. And in the short term one can push accountability at the national level.”
“If you can’t get international law to work, you can work with national law. We have already seen in Germany children taking the government to court and the court stating that the government was not meeting its agreements.”
In order to address countries that are refusing to follow climate agreements or simply free-riding and not making an effort, there are other short term solutions to work with.
“We have to build alliances of the willing. Governments that really want to go forward could already now start working and put pressure on others.”
Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen emphasises that the patterns of interaction in future forms of global governance have to change.
“We should not just package the current ways of negotiating into a new structure: we also have to recognise there are fundamentally new principles to be built in, in terms of patterns of deliberating in search of the common good, in ways that are truly inclusive, built on, for example, mutual respect, tolerance, and valuing cultural diversity. An explicit function of a GEA should be trust- and justice-building, which includes establishing accountability mechanisms – and particularly to address the barrier of lack of trust between the Global South and North.”
Finally Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen warns about the temptation in the urgent climate crisis to do things too fast. “It is important that global climate governance is legitimate in the eyes not only of the powerful states, but also more widely among humanity, that it is seen as justified to allocate authority to the global level.”