What is the use of new global treaties if we don’t know the precise effect of existing ones? To deliver better global policy results and improve institutional design, the Environmental Conventions Initiative proposes to measure, explain, and improve the level of implementation across global environmental conventions, based on empirical data.
Contemporary risks are increasingly global in scale, scope, and impact. Recent scholarship by a team of environmental scientists has pointed to the urgency of global action to reduce environmental risks as evidence mounts that humanity has crossed four of nine planetary boundaries, which delineate a “safe operating space for humanity”. This model acknowledges that humans have become the major driver of global environmental change and that, if unchecked, human activity threatens to cause irreversible environmental change. Two of the planetary boundaries – climate change and biosphere integrity – set core limits and crossing them would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.
Global environmental conventions, also known as treaties or agreements, are the main international legal instrument for promoting collective action toward dealing with global environmental risks and staying within the safe planetary operating space. While it is estimated that there are approximately 1,100 multilateral environmental agreements, just about a dozen of these treaties are truly global and deal with global risks related to climate change, land-system change, biosphere change, and chemicals and waste. As we anticipate the entry into force of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and prepare for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is logical to ask oneself: How have existing environmental treaties tackled the global risks they were created to address? What has made them successful or not? What has enabled countries to implement their international obligations and what have been the stumbling blocks?
“Surprisingly, there have been no systematic empirical assessments of the degree to which countries have implemented their commitments under global environmental conventions. As a result, there is no baseline against which to assess performance, actions, or even expectations.”
Surprisingly, there have been no systematic empirical assessments of the degree to which countries have implemented their commitments under global environmental conventions. As a result, there is no baseline against which to assess performance, actions, or even expectations; and without empirical evidence, we risk erroneous conclusions. In the absence of implementation measurement, it is impossible to determine whether these conventions solve the problems they were created to address. Moreover, without understanding what enables or prevents countries from implementing their obligations, no serious institutional reform can take place either at the national or international level. In essence, current scholarship is not able to determine whether the global organization charged with addressing global risks – the United Nations – possesses a reliable mechanism for planetary stewardship.
At the University of Massachusetts Boston, we have launched a research initiative to address this gap. The Environmental Conventions Initiative seeks to measure, explain, and improve the level of implementation across global environmental conventions. We use the national reports countries submit to the conventions to track and compare implementation results. At the heart of this endeavor is an index that illustrates trends across countries, within countries (across issues and over time), and across conventions. The index is a composite score derived from the answers to the questions in the national reports submitted to each convention secretariat.
Aligning the data from these agreements is a particularly complex task as each convention has its own reporting platform, requirements, and timeline. Over the past three years, a team of researchers has coded over 90,000 data points dating back to 2001. The outcomes demonstrate the value of the exercise. Preliminary findings show that:
- performance has improved over time;
- many developing countries are more consistent with reporting and show higher performance than expected;
- many countries report consistently, even when the data show poor results;
- the complexity of the reporting process is not necessarily a deterrent to reporting compliance;
- institutional support from the secretariats is important in ensuring regular reporting and facilitating implementation.
The environmental conventions implementation index, as well as analytical country profiles and related training modules, will be valuable tools for accountability and transparency in national commitments and global policies. Empirical results are key to understanding the dynamics of implementation, engaging with policymakers, and identifying leverage points for improvement. Importantly, implementation of new global agreements, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the Minamata Convention on mercury, and the Sustainable Development Goals, will benefit from the lessons of this research. These lessons could inform policy dialogues about how to assess collective action, how to identify and overcome barriers to national reporting, and how best to use conventions to inform national policies and engagement.