Strengthening the Global Environmental Treaty-Making System

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Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT, author of Environmental Diplomacy (Oxford University Press) and co-author of Transboundary Environmental Negotiation (Jossey-Bass Publishers), and founder of the Consensus Building Institute. Professor Susskind is also the vice-chair of education for the Program on Negotiation’s Executive Committee.

The Climate Change Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol that followed it are examples of the more than 100 global environmental agreements that have been negotiated over the past four decades. A great many other treaties have been enacted dealing with hazardous substances, fisheries management, ocean dumping, outer space, protection of endangered species, and other resource management problems. Only one agreement, though, the Montreal Protocol, has actually reversed the environmentally damaging trend — ozone depletion — it was designed to address. All the rest have merely slowed the pace of pollution or resource mismanaged. Many countries, like the United States, have not even ratified some of the most important treaties like the Law of the Sea and the Biodiversity Convention even though we know that such rules are important. Enforcement of global agreements is difficult. The financial resources to support their implementation (by enhancing governmental capacity) are not available. The make-up of the scientific panels needed to monitor and manage various treaty regimes has become highly politicized.

It’s time to think about strengthening our global environmental treaty-making system. First, we should acknowledge that civil society (and not just government) has an important role to play in drafting and enforcing global environmental treaties. Second, treaties should include incentives to countries that ratify them and comply with their terms. Third, we should insist that all treaties include meaningful timetables and targets and that they be updated regularly. Countries that fail to meet the requirements should be penalized financially and excluded from the benefits of the global trade system. Finally, all the multilateral banks and lending institutions, the WTO and the UN agencies – like the United Nations Development Programme – should require compliance with all global environmental treaty provisions as a prerequisite for loans or participation in any of their activities.

The global environmental treaty-making system we currently have in place is not working. The scientific community should push hard for reforms that will reverse the damage we are suffering daily and put us on a track toward sustainability.

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