Contemporary ecological risks are increasingly global in scale, scope, and impact with strong levels of interconnection not only across the borders of nations, but across continents. Action to address them, however, has to be taken at both global and national level. The environment is a classic common good: all benefit from healthy ecosystems and a pollution-free planet, while extraction of natural resources and pollution by some compromise the benefit for many.
A number of international institutions oversee monitoring, assessment, and reporting on problem identification and implementation; they set standards, policies, and laws; and they support the development of institutional capacity to address existing and emerging problems at the national level. Governments crafted the institutional architecture for managing global ecological risks in the 1970s with the creation of the anchor institution for the global environment: the United Nations Environment Program, now known as UN Environment. Global environmental conventions, also known as treaties or agreements, are the main international legal instrument for promoting collective action toward managing ecological risk and staying within the safe planetary operating space. Their number and membership has increased dramatically.
About a dozen international treaties deal with global issues including climate change, land-system change, biosphere change, and chemicals and waste. These include the UN conventions on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species, trade in endangered species, desertification, persistent organic pollutants, among others. The expectation is that when countries implement their obligations under the treaties, the problems will be managed and ultimately resolved. At the national level, governments have established ministries and authorities to deal with environmental concerns, advocate for ecologically informed decision making, and improve national capacity.
States voluntarily create international agreements to govern their relations through legal responsibilities. There is, however, no overarching judicial system or a coercive penal system that could ensure effective enforcement of the agreements that deal with environmental issues. Breaches cannot be sanctioned. Compliance and implementation have to be enticed rather than coerced. Environmental agreements such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, for example, are explicitly non-punitive: countries face no penalties for not meeting their commitments. Rather, they are facilitative, as international institutions commit to support compliance and implementation.
Importantly, many countries are implementing their obligations. The Environmental Conventions Index developed by the team at the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston measures the implementation of global environmental conventions. The Index is a composite score based on the national reports that member states submit to each convention secretariat and illustrates trends across countries, within countries (across issues and over time), and across the conventions. It highlights the leaders and the laggards and raises questions about the determinants of implementation. Availability of data, comprehensive regulations, national capacities, cooperation, and funding emerge as important factors.
Reporting is the fundamental mechanism to entice and ensure implementation. National reports on progress in achieving global commitments are part of every agreement.
Reporting is the fundamental mechanism to entice and monitor implementation. National reports on progress in achieving global commitments are part of every agreement. Reporting, however, is a challenge because of low capacity and poor data in countries, an inadequate reporting system that does not always cover the comprehensive nature of the issues, and lack of analysis of and feedback on submitted reports. It is notable, however, that the complexity of the reporting process is not necessarily a deterrent to reporting compliance. The Ramsar Convention on wetlands, for example, requires countries to report on over 100 indicators and has among the highest reporting rates with member states reporting at close to 90% of the time.
Enforcement mechanisms do not guarantee that international commitments will be implemented, and much less that problems will be solved. Countries, however, care about reputation and can be influenced by ratings and rankings, an approach to global performance assessment that has come to be known as scorecard diplomacy. This form of soft power can shape national policies and outcomes as it goes beyond ‘naming and shaming’ to ‘naming and acclaiming’. It outlines actions that could lead to better ranking, and enables learning across peers. Scorecard diplomacy has proven effective in national governance, corruption, human trafficking, environmental democracy, and environmental performance.
In the run up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the narrative around climate change changed from a story of sacrifice to a story of opportunity. Companies, cities, and countries saw the transformation to a low carbon economy as desirable, inevitable, and irrevocable and pledged to lead it. By embracing the challenge of environmental preservation as an opportunity for the future, institutions and individuals could support effective implementation of ambitious proposals and create a community of change agents around the globe.
Associate Professor of Global Governance and Director, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston; Global Challenges Foundation Ambassador