Environmental global governance has focused in recent decades on reducing the harmful impact of human activity and pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the 1980s, scientists established that the Earth’s greenhouse gases (the natural gases that keep the Earth warm to enable it to sustain life) were increasing rapidly to harmful levels, and by as much as 35%. This increase in greenhouse gases would see a dangerous rise in global temperatures, warming the planet excessively. This is known as climate change or global warming. Scientists have gradually concluded with increasingly convincing evidence that human activity has caused the increase in greenhouse gases. The key changes have been growing emissions of carbon dioxide (responsible for approximately 63% of global warming) and methane (responsible for approximately 19% of global warming). This is caused by increased burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, as well as deforestation leading to fewer trees absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Key international meetings on climate change
There have been several key international meetings in relation to climate change.
Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972): members agreed on the principle of the need to protect the global commons. There was an emphasis on states taking individual, rather than collective, action.
Rio Earth Summit (1992): the UNFCCC was agreed as part of three so-called Rio Declarations. The convention requires that states agree to work together to reach more speciﬁc international agreements on future climate change.
Kyoto Summit (1997): set internationally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. The targets apply only to industrialised states. Over 100 industrialising states, including Brazil, China, India and South Africa, are exempt from emissions targets. The USA signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol came into full legal force nearly a decade later, in 2005.
Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (2009): included the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15), but did not agree legally binding commitments. A key challenge in the negotiations was the problem of fairness between targets for developed and developing states. Unlike Kyoto, it agreed that developing states would do more to combat climate change and that developed states would also help raise US$100 billion by 2020 for developing states to invest in tackling climate change.
UN Climate Change Conference/Paris COP 21 Summit (2016): the agreement was the ﬁrst to achieve commitment from all states to cut carbon emissions. Fewer differences were allowed between developed and developing states. The agreement was partly legally binding and partly voluntary. States agreed to an ambitious pledge to prevent global temperature from rising above 2°C this century. There was more funding to help developing states play their part in tackling climate change.
Glasgow 2021 COP26, was the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference: On 13 November 2021, the participating 197 countries agreed a new deal, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, aimed at staving off dangerous climate change. The final agreement explicitly mentions coal, which is the single biggest contributor to climate change. Previous COP agreements have not mentioned coal, oil or gas, or even fossil fuels in general, as a driver, or major cause of climate change, making the Glasgow Climate Pact the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce unabated coal power.
The role and signiﬁcance of the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created as a mechanism for developing global environmental policy. The UNFCCC was established at the Rio Earth Summit – the UN Conference on Environment and Development – in 1992. The treaty came into force in 1994, and by 2012 it had been ratiﬁed by 194 states and organisations. Signatory parties have met every year since 1995 to assess progress in dealing with climate change.
Parties to the treaty have to make national inventories of their sources of CO2 possible sinks (ways CO2 emissions and signatory states were required to freeze CO2 emissions could be absorbed).
At the 1997 Kyoto Summit, the 181signatory states were required to freeze CO2 emissions at 1990 levels from 2000 onwards. This paved the way for the introduction of legally binding emission targets. Requirements on states were determined on the basis of equity and in accordance with states’ ‘common but diﬀerentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’. States that had contributed most to global warming, had industrialised earlier or were more developed were expected to accept greater reductions in their emissions, while developing states were not expected to reduce theirs.
One criticism of the UNFCCC is that it did not take account of the fact that emissions by developing states would increase rapidly as their economic growth accelerated. Furthermore, the UNFCCC is merely a set of recommendations for further action – its rulings and requirements are not legally binding.
The 2015 Paris climate change agreement agreed that poorer states would receive financial assistance to help them move towards using cleaner sources of energy.
There is increasing acceptance that climate change brings with it a risk of natural disasters, such as flooding or drought, which have an immediate impact on human security and food production. India is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and, in 2016, it agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement. Brazil has both signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, making it the third- largest country responsible for global emissions, after China and the USA, to ratify the deal. It has said that it will increase renewable energy sources to 45% of all energy consumption by 2030. Brazil’s contribution to climate change is somewhat different to other states, in that deforestation in the Amazon basin is the main cause of its emissions.
Then-US secretary of state John Kerry highlighted the impact of climate change on future generations and the need for sustainable development when he signed the Paris Agreement in 2016 alongside his granddaughter.
Donald Trump argued that China had invented the notion of climate change in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. Around 30 years earlier, similar claims were made in China that climate change was designed to hold back China’s economic development.
COP 26 The Glasgow Climate Pact
The creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its role and signiﬁcance
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up four years before the UNFCCC. It was created jointly by a United Nations agency, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Currently, it has 195 members. The purpose of the IPCC is to provide impartial information and advice about climate change to decision-makers and interested organisations and groups. The panel consists of leading climate-change scientists, who volunteer to review the latest research on climate change. Three working groups look at:
• the physical science basis of climate change
• climate-change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability
• mitigation of climate change.
There is also a taskforce on national greenhouse gas inventories.
The panel makes regular reports, the most important being Assessment Reports, which assess the risks of climate change, its current and its projected impact, and comment on the options for adaptation (coping with climate change) and mitigation (how to reduce emissions). There have been ﬁve assessment reports so far (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, 2014). A sixth report is due in 2022. Through its reports, the IPCC inﬂuences understanding of, and state policy-making on, climate change. It has established a consensus that climate change exists by providing evidence that the Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of human activity – through the production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, from the burning of fossil fuels. The 2007 Assessment Report projected that, if nothing was done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s mean temperature would rise by 2.4–6.4°C by 2099. The IPCC has made it increasingly diﬃcult for states to ignore the issue. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its eﬀorts in raising awareness of climate change.
Addressing and resolving contemporary global issues
Challenges to eﬀective global environmental governance
The establishment of global environmental governance in the form of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has promoted a consensus on the existence of global warming and, to some extent, the scale of it. However, it has been diﬃcult to reach agreement on how to mitigate it. There are a number of reasons for this. One is disagreement over whether to pursue gradual policies to discourage environmentally damaging behaviour or whether to take a more radical approach, which would risk lower levels of economic growth.
Shallow green ecologists support sustainability, believing that sustainable development is possible and that economic growth is compatible with environmental protection. Deep green ecologists, however, reject anthropocentrism (the prioritisation of human interests) in favour of an approach where nature takes priority. Another problem is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the idea that where resources are shared they will be misused or exhausted. If the tragedy of the commons is right it will be impossible to get states to agree to self-restraint in the exploitation of the Earth’s resources. What further compounds the tragedy of the commons is the competing interests of states, especially between the developed and developing worlds. Why should any state accept limitations on its emissions that eﬀectively limit its sovereignty, especially when the burden is shared unequally or there is a perception that others should take greater responsibility for the problem. Moreover, how should the share of responsibility be apportioned – according to current development or consumption, or based on historical levels? The various international conferences and the agreements reached at them highlight the obstacles in taking concerted action on climate change.
Competing views about how to tackle environmental issues Shallow green ecology versus deep green ecology
Shallow green (reformist) and deep green (radical) ecology refer to two competing traditions in ecologism. Ecologism is a political ideology that argues that nature is an interconnected whole, where humans, animals and plants share a self-regulating and mutually sustaining ecosystem.
• Shallow greens: At one end of the spectrum, shallow green ecologists aim to reconcile the interests of humans with animals and plants, while still allowing for economic growth – within certain limits. Shallow greens recognise that environmental damage will inevitably aﬀect human prosperity, whether through the depletion of fossil-fuel reserves or through the eﬀects of climate change, such as more frequent ﬂooding or more severe storms. To mitigate these potentially damaging eﬀects of over-consumption, humans can curtail activities that are damaging to the environment. This may involve some decline in living standards, or at least lower rates of economic growth, but shallow greens believe that a balance can be struck between economic growth and environmental concerns – what is called sustainable development.US philosopher Anthony Weston put forward the idea of shallow green ecology. Its aim is to preserve the natural environment so that human beings can continue to benefit from it, rather than because protecting the environment is itself a noble objective. For example, natural resources that are useful to human beings, such as oil and gas, should be used carefully and efficiently so that future generations can also make use of these resources. Shallow green ecology is more pragmatic than deep ecology and is more rooted in politics than in religion or spiritualism.
Shallow green ecologists identify various ways in which sustainable development can be achieved. One way is for environmental costs to be factored in to economic decisions, so that it is more costly and less proﬁtable to engage in activities or practices that are damaging to the environment. Examples are taxes on polluting practices or subsidies for the production of green energy. Shallow greens also look to human ingenuity and innovation to provide solutions to green problems, such as carbon capture and the development of drought-resistant crops. A third way is the development of international regimes, such as the UNFCCC, and international regulatory bodies, such as the IPCC, to ensure all states play their part in protecting the environment.
• Deep greens: Deep green ecology takes a more radical approach to the environment. Deep green ecologists reject the reformist shallow green position of sustainable development, because they argue that economic growth has caused environmental damage. The capitalist desire for proﬁt has not only led to the exploitation of workers, but also to the plundering of the environment.
Deep greens also disagree with the shallow greens’ anthropocentric approach, which puts human interests above animals and plants. They argue instead that nature is equal if not superior to human interests – an ecocentric approach. Their solutions to climate change and degradation involve a paradigm shiﬅ away from a capitalist economic system to a more sustainable, less materialistic economic system. They advocate human population control as a way to minimise the human impact on the environment, and promote wilderness and biodiversity. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess introduced the idea of deep green ecology as a way of thinking about humans and the environment. It is both a scientific and philosophical, and even a religious, argument. Its aim is to preserve and protect the natural environment for the benefit of the natural environment itself, regardless of the positive impact on humans. Deep ecology rejects the notion that there are only state interests and argues that protecting the natural environment and the global commons itself are essential political objectives in their own right.
Anthony Weston proposes creative, and constructive thinking, especially for purposes of social and environmental re-imagination and pragmatic ethical practice.
The idea of sustainable development gained currency through the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987, Our Common Future. The report aimed to show how economic growth and poverty reduction should be linked to environmental protection. The report deﬁned sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Within this statement there is an implicit recognition that current economic growth should be limited to ensure that resources would be available to future generations – a concept of fairness between generations – as well as equity between the developed and developing world, ensuring that richer states would not plunder resources at the expense of poorer countries. Sustainable development as deﬁned by the report has exerted considerable inﬂuence on development theory and has been adopted by shallow green ecologists to justify their reformist approach. The report, and the idea of sustainable development, paved the way for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
Today, the tragedy of the commons theory would apply to the seas and oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere, the Moon and outer space – all of which do not fall under the sovereign jurisdiction of any state or authority, so are in danger. The seas and oceans are warming and are being over- ﬁshed; the polar and glacial ice is melting; greenhouse gas levels have risen by almost 50 per cent on pre-industrial levels; increasing amounts of satellite debris are orbiting the Earth. The tragedy of the commons poses a potentially insurmountable problem for policy-makers and environmentalists. There seems to be no incentive for individuals and states to modify their behaviour or accept restrictions on their freedom of action if they can gain all the beneﬁts while others bear the cost. The world’s common resources – like its seas and atmosphere – cannot be privatised.
However, international regimes have had some success in forcing states to comply with environmental regulations. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty ensures that the Antarctic remains the last great wilderness. It prevents the continent being used for military purposes, the detonation of nuclear devices or the storage of radioactive waste, and only allows access for scientiﬁc research. Another example is the Montreal Protocol of 1987. It banned the production of CFCs (chloroﬂuorocarbons), which were depleting the ozone layer – the part of the atmosphere that protects against the harmful eﬀects of ultraviolet radiation. A fund was established in 1990 to help the developing world ﬁnd alternatives to CFCs, and by 1996 the developed countries had stopped producing these gases.
Critics argue that the tragedy of the commons has been exaggerated. There are numerous examples of indigenous peoples, such as the Amazonian and North American Indians, the Bedouin and Mongolian Yak herders, who sustainably manage collective goods.