Home inFocus The Pitfalls of Global Environmental Regimes

The Pitfalls of Global Environmental Regimes

Howard Gumnitzky Fall 2009

Concerns over climate change have spurred calls for a coordinated international effort to regulate global emissions. Those who warn of global warming envision a scenario in which leaders from around the world rally to save the planet.

International environmental treaties are not without pitfalls, however. International law is a body of legislation that individual countries may or may not decide to follow. In many cases, international agreements have proven entirely ineffective, leading to failure.

Failed Regimes

Consider the international fisheries regimes, dating back to the 1974 United Nations’ Conference of the Law of the Sea. They have repeatedly failed to restrict harvesting practices, leading again and again to severe depletion of important fish stocks. Even when regimes are effective, such as the phasing out of fishing in the Barents Sea, displaced fishermen have found new areas to fish, and have depleted them instead. Thus, the overall result has been depleted fish stocks.

Another failure was the Paris Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution in 1974. The twelve European signatory states, bordering the northeast Atlantic Ocean, agreed to prevent pollution of the water from land-based sources. Although the parties met annually, competing national interests prevented them from adopting any joint commitments to curb pollution until the late 1980s. This joint effort finally led to a reduction in controlled substances dumped into the northeast Atlantic. However, these commitments did not lead to behavioral changes on land, where pollution persisted. This pollution ultimately ran off into streams and rivers, leading right back to the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1977, delegates from 95 countries attended the U.N. Conference on Desertification (UNCOD). Various plans resulted from the conference to develop a program to combat global desertification. While UNCOD did succeed in placing desertification on the international agenda, its plans were not implemented. This failure was due primarily to a lack of funding by the conference participants. Moreover, UNCOD failed to enlist the local populations to help the cause.

Finally, it is important to examine the ozone regime that emerged in the 1980s. It initially provided striking results in phasing out production of ozone damaging chemicals, but later faced overwhelming challenges. As scholars Oran Young and Marc Levy explain, many developing countries willfully failed to enforce these provisions, particularly if the laws had a deleterious impact on their economies. Moreover, black markets emerged for some of these chemicals.

Modest Successes

This is not to say that international environmental regulation must fail. As Young and Levy note, one successful global treaty was the Antarctic Treaty System. It was created in 1950 to ensure that the Antarctic region remained open to scientific research by all participating states. However, it must be noted that this international regime did not attempt to curtail potentially lucrative activities. This may have been the key to its relative success.

Another nominally successful initiative emerged amidst the Cold War, when Eastern and Western nations attempted to combat global environmental problems. In the mid-1970s, negotiators identified the environment as an area of common concern during the détente process. As a result, Eastern and Western countries signed the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) in 1979. The regime was a moderate success because it increased international compliance with air pollution protocols, and it led to a heightened awareness of air pollution, leading to a reduction.

The Third World

Occasional successes notwithstanding, the big picture is bleak. International environmental treaties have not prevented or even slowed the rapid acceleration of worldwide ecological degradation.

This stems from a problem commonly observed in developing states. Many of these states officially comply with the prerequisites set forth by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to receive financial aid. However, according to a study by the environmental group Ecovitality, these developing nations frequently enact “model” legislation, copying environmental laws drafted by developed sates, even when these laws have little relevance to the ecological and social circumstances of the Third World nation adopting them. As a result, non-implementation, non-enforcement, and non-compliance are so common that they are the norm, rather than the exception.

Third World nations also lack the technical, managerial, and financial capability to implement meaningful conservation measures. Absent these capabilities, environmental treaties cannot succeed, regardless of the given government’s intent. The result is the continuation of environmentally destructive and socially destructive practices, including cyanide and dynamite fishing, deforestation, and water pollution.

Sovereign Interests

When examining international conservation through the prism of international law, a glaring inconsistency usually emerges. The fundamental principle of international law is that national sovereignty trumps all else, thus relegating nature conservation to a second-rate concern.

Moreover, the international legal infrastructure that has been created to police global pollution (committees, conferences, and review boards), has very little impact on local business enterprises around the world that are simply trying to turn a profit and, knowingly or unknowingly, pollute.

Even when countries are identified as hosting polluters, the consequences for non-compliance are virtually non-existent. As Ecovitality notes, the international regime lacks the ability (and authority) to implement its own legal standards.

Thus, while protection of the global environment is undoubtedly an admirable goal, international legal regimes are exceedingly difficult to enforce. The inherent weakness of international law prevents effective implementation. This, in turn, weakens individual nations (such as the United States) seeking to strengthen national standards, and significantly dampens the hope for international efforts to bolster these efforts.

Howard Gumnitzky, a research assistant at the Jewish Policy Center, studies international law the University of Maryland.