Global Governance and the Environment: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Global Governance in Tackling Contemporary Environmental Issues

By Richard E. Poole
2012, Vol. 4 No. 06 | pg. 2/2 |

Global Environmental Governance and Climate Change

Yet, weaknesses are not only apparent in the structuring and design of the system, but are also visible in the actions these actors take within this system. One of the most evident forms of global environmental governance has been the creation and proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and treaties, particularly as they provide the legal framework for addressing contemporary environmental challenges. As Kanie states, “varying methodologies used for counting MEAs have resulted in different numbers, but many researchers and analysts agree that there is a proliferation of MEAs, constituting [it as] a key characteristic of the existing environmental governance system” (Kanie 2007, p. 68).

As an example, there have been estimates of “more than 500 MEAs registered with the UN, including 61 atmosphere-related” agreements (Kanie 2007, p. 68). However, there are various barriers faced by global actors during the process and implementation of MEAs, which can determine the overall effectiveness of these agreements in tackling environmental problems. These include for example, the level of negotiation and participation by actors at the start of proceedings, and the effectiveness of MEAs in achieving the overall goals they set. This will be explored herein, using the issue of climate change as a policy example throughout.

The reasons for a focus on climate change are all but apparent in the global environmental governance network. As Sebastian Oberthür notes, “the international regime on climate change is one of the broadest and most complex international governance systems in the field of environment and beyond. Representing the biggest environmental challenges at the beginning of the twenty-first century, climate change has a variety of impacts on the natural environment and on human society” (Oberthur 2006, p. 53).

With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the issue of climate change, so prominent in worldwide media, has found its way to the forefront of policy issues in international institutions. As a result, many of the challenges faced by global governance actors in addressing climate change can be applied more broadly as problems for the global governance of the environment in a variety of issue areas.

Even from the very start of negotiations, global actors have had to overcome various hurdles in the creation of effective MEAs. One of the key challenges here is the question of ‘fairness’ in relation to the proposed agreements amongst state actors. For developing countries, concerns arise to how limits on certain actions, considered a danger to the environment, will hinder their development.

For example, in relation to a call for the wider reduction of global greenhouse gases “at the Rio Summit in 1992, LDCs [Least Developed Countries] insisted that affluent nations ought to bear the full burden… since affluent nations after so many decades of industrial development, were more responsible for the existing build-ups of greenhouse gases and better able to bear the cost of reducing new emissions” (Rabkin and Sheenan 199, p. 21).

Effectively, the crux of the argument here is that MEAs based upon ‘reduction’ would, in the words of Chang, ‘kick away of the ladder’ for developing states1. Thus, it is argued that developed states hold an ‘environmental debt’ to the LDCs in order to ensure ‘global equity’ of environmental challenges.

Authors like Steven Shirley go further, suggesting that through MEAs “we are seeing a new type of imperialism emerge, an imperialism based not on the acquisition of territory, but on a radical environmentalist agenda, an agenda that seeks to reserve the earth and its resources for the wealthy and elite, to freeze energy use at current levels, and to restrict nation states from exploiting indigenous resources for the benefit of their people” (Shirley and Soumin 2009, p.848).

As a practical policy example, LDCs were concerned that the Montreal Protocol, and its limits on CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) and other climate-altering gases, would unfairly impact them financially and their ability to develop industrially. Such uncertainty is clearly evident when we consider that “Mexico was the only developing country producer of ODS [(Ozone Depleting Substances)] that signed the Protocol when it was first open to signature” (DeSombre 2006, pp. 109-112).

Consequently, certain amendments have been made to circumvent these concerns and attempt to ‘balance the scales’ of environmental responsibility. For example, the establishment of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol in 1991 has helped to support LDCs financially and assist in the necessary technological transfer for the production, purchase and use of new refrigerants (Desombre 2006, pp. 109-112). Furthermore, in 1992, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol outlined that the outright elimination of CFC production and use would not apply to LDCs until 2010 (Desombre 2006, pp. 109-112).

However, it is not only developing countries that have their ‘national interests’ at heart, as these environmental abatements have not been universally accepted by developed states. The United States’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to date is one of the starkest examples of this. As summarized by the US Chief negotiator at the Fifth UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, refusal rested partly upon “the Protocol's exclusion of developing countries from its emissions limitation requirements” (American Society of International Law 2001, p. 648). In particular, they argued that “the protocol is flawed because it does not require major developing countries, such as China, to undertake mandatory emission reductions” (Eckersley 2007, pp. 259-260).

Consequently, it was put forward that this would unjustly impact upon US macroeconomic policy, because “if the United States… restricted their economies’ use of energy, then competitors from less-developed countries would have an advantage in international markets” (Rabkin and Sheenan 1999, p. 67). The repercussions of this rejection for effective global environmental protection are all but apparent, if one considers that “in 1990 [the Protocol base year] the US alone was responsible for as much as 36 percent of total emissions by industrial countries” (Hovi et al. 2003, p. 04).

As a result, negotiations have often been adversarial and time-costly, attempting to balance the vested interests of states with the needs for robust and all encompassing environmental targets. This is clear in the most recent UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Durban, whereby talks had overrun by 36 hours before a deal was struck (The Guardian 2011). Accordingly, many agreements have resulted in collective bargaining efforts, suggesting that “merely reaching agreement seems to have become the goal, to such an extent that a performance focus [and even the depth and realistic achievability of the targets set] is nearly entirely absent from the discourse” (Najam et al. 2006, p. 46).

Dunne et al. aptly illustrate this point, that “even with the USA’s full participation in the Kyoto Protocol, the negotiated aggregate target of around 5 per cent will do very little to stem the problem of global warming, given that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases must be reduced by around 60-80 percent to protect the Earth’s atmosphere” (Eckersley 2007, p. 260). This is further supported by more recent research by Zelli, who notes how “the Copenhagen summit failed to produce a binding and comprehensive agreement… [to the degree that] negotiations have been in part turning to a voluntary ‘pledge and review’ model as a second-best solution, implying a set of individual soft commitments instead of an encompassing deal” (Zelli 2011, p. 258).

Tied with this is yet another problem that thwarts the effectiveness of GEG, existing beyond the processes of treaty design, to the issues of treaty overlap and contradiction. These problems can be attributed to the over-focus on policy agreement mentioned above, and co-ordination weaknesses amongst the host of actors who form the current GEG architecture. Effectively, due to their sheer numbers, agreements may not just overlap in content, but in fact contradict one and other.

As an empirical example, “the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer indirectly promotes the use of certain greenhouse gases (hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs), thus undermining the objective of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” (Oberthur and Gehring 2006, p. 29). This proves problematic as “legal inconsistencies may hinder the credibility and coherence of international law”, confuse state actors, and consequently undermine the effectiveness of these treaties in promoting environmental protection more generally (Roy and Ivanova 2007, p. 52).

Yet, whilst the outlook for GEG seems bleak, it would be naïve not to acknowledge the achievements of the current system of global environmental management. In broad terms, environment concerns are now rigidly institutionalized in the formal aspects of global governance. “The international community has clearly accepted the environment as a key topic in global affairs” and with it has attempted, albeit with difficulties and under intense criticism, to make a change (World Resources Institute 2011).

Thus, it can be argued that some change or improvement to the environment is better than none. Furthermore, the various weaknesses identified above have not gone unnoticed by the global environmental community. In relation to MEAs for example, “the three ‘Rio MEAs’… have all come to recognize the problem of fragmentation and advocate synergistic approaches.” (Najam et al. 2006, p. 33).


In conclusion, summarizing the effectiveness of global environmental governance is no easy task, and an overarching conclusive analysis of all aspects of the global environmental governance is near on impossible. However, by looking at two key areas, the institutional architecture of the GEG system and treaty creation, it can be concluded that challenges to the effectiveness of GEG arise due to its complexity. This complexity derives from the numerous understandings of the concept of ‘global environmental governance’ itself. In short, how we define GEG impacts upon how we think it should be arranged or approached, and such diversity is clearly apparent within the physical character of the global environmental system, as the multitude of environmental institutions demonstrates as a case in point.

Whilst it is recognized that this complexity does not imply imprecision, it must be acknowledged that at the very least it stipulates the need for a high level of co-ordination, negotiation and coherence between GEG actors. This is crucial in order to find effective and efficient solutions to the global environmental crisis. However, as a final point, one should remember that GEG is in a process of consistent change and flux, attempting to address and adapt to the complex nature of environmental problems and their management globally. In the words of Wapner therefore, one must remember that “Rome wasn't built in a day… [and that] global environmental… challenges aren't solved in a matter of months” (Wapner 2003, p. 01).


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Gupta A. and Asher M. (1999) Environment and the Developing World: Principles, Policies and Management. Chichester: Wiley.

Hovi, J., Skodvin, T. and Andresen, S. (2003) “The Persistence of the Kyoto Protocol: Why Other Annex I Countries Move on Without the United States” Global Environmental Politics 3 (4) pp. 1-23.

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1.) See Ha-Joon Chang (2002) Kicking Away the Ladder – Development Strategy in Historical Perspective for his specific context.

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