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What’s most important for treaties in UNEP’s GEO

Tom McInerney • Jun 27th, 2012
What’s most important for treaties in UNEP’s GEO

Originally published at the blog of the Treaty Effectiveness Initiative

Although multilateral treaties received little attention in the Rio Outcome Document, UNEP’s recently released Fifth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) did offer pointed comments concerning the effectiveness of multilateral environmental accords. While the discussion of multilateral instruments came in the GEO’s final chapter, its relative importance can be judged by reference made to it in the press release for the report’s launch.

The report makes specific recommendations that will likely remain salient well after the Rio conference. (I’ll discuss the Rio outcome in a subsequent post.) For now, I’d like to draw attention to eight key insights that it makes in regards to treaty effectiveness.

Frank acknowledgement that existing international environmental treaties are largely not working. The report clearly acknowledges that environmental degradation is increasing and that existing approaches aren’t working. It found that of 90 environmental goals surveyed, there was a lack of significant progress for 86 and flat or negative results for 32. As for treaty successes, it sheds no new light, predictably trotting out the Montreal Protocol as an example of a treaty that has worked. From TEI’s perspective, this issue is really the bottom line for multilateral problem solving efforts.

Calls for adaptive governance. The report devotes significant attention to adaptive governance as a way of improving environmental protection overall. The report describes adaptive governance as a manifestation of resilience, involving systems’ abilities to respond to external or internal stimuli by modifying their actions to achieve greater stability.

Support for results-based approaches to multilateral environmental governance. The report underscores the need to create clear goals against which to monitor progress. Specific to MEAs, it notes that they are increasingly incorporating these approaches. In underscoring this point, the press release stated that “where international treaties and agreements have tackled goals with specific, measurable targets-such as the bans on ozone-depleting substances and lead in petrol-they have demonstrated considerable success.” Most of the discussion on this point, however, refers to the concept of sustainable development goals and the need for measurement in the context of global environmental governance generally.

Suggestion that multi-stakeholder coalitions can improve effectiveness. The report calls for including civil society and business in negotiation of multilateral agreements, as a way of making treaties more responsive to societal inputs and contributing to increased corporate adherence to norms established.

Emphasis on involving scientific communities. The report identifies the positive role that scientific communities can play in advancing understandings of treaty problem solving techniques, setting goals, and assessing results.

Analysis of financial flows for treaty secretariats and national implementation. The report provides a useful chart on financial resources available to the secretariats of selected multilateral environmental agreements in 2010. This chart shows great differences in the levels of support that different environmental treaties receive. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) receives only $330,000, while the Ramsar Convention received $4.67 million and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) received $12.3 million. The CBD’s financing was approximately equal to the financing for the Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Basel Conventions combined.

In addition, the report analyzes environmental funds given to countries as official development assistance (ODA). It notes that the funds allocated as ODA dwarf those made available to treaty secretariats: US$17.4 billion was given for the three Rio conventions alone. Interestingly, the report clearly shows that aid commitments for those treaties have risen steadily from approximately $5 billion in 1998 to today’s figure. The lion’s share of those increases can be attributed to climate change.

The report has a useful analysis of the proliferation of different funding channels for ODA to the environmental sector. It notes that four donors provide over $10 million on average per recipient country, while on another extreme 11 donors provide less than $1 million. As others have recognized, the problems of aid fragmentation and absorptive capacity will only be exacerbated with the addition of climate change aid.

Creation of UN system wide capacity building approach. The report calls for creation of a unified system for capacity building for environmental work through the UN. Presumably such an approach would encompass capacity building in relation to treaty implementation.

Environmental justice. The report devotes considerable attention to the question of environmental justice, suggesting important linkages between the human rights and access to justice agendas.

Implications and assessments

Environmental law is frequently a harbinger of regulatory trends in other fields. If so, some of the insights of UNEP’s report may inform approaches to other forms of regulation through multilateral treaties.

Results-based environmental governance

Among the most as important and potentially useful observations expressed in the report from the standpoint of TEI is the call for results-based approaches to regulatory governance. Its desirability notwithstanding, any results-based approach to treaty management will need to surpass the impediments created by the heavy legalism associated with multilateral agreements.

The report’s calls for adaptive governance are steps in the right direction, but the report does not provide great detail on the methods and does not analyze how they fit with the existing structure of international environmental law. From the perspective of TEI, the architecture of multilateral environmental agreements constitutes a large part of the space in which environmental governance takes place.

For multilateral treaties, what is needed are new techniques that work within the structures of existing normative systems. Instead of proposing some overriding governance structure that will reform management of multilateral agreements, we need to change treaty practices from the inside. Overall, the report highlights the need for more flexible environmental management and governance practices, which must also apply to international legal instruments.

Squaring treaty obligations with development realities

One point of contention concerns the characterization of many international environmental agreements as effectively constituting soft law. I have argued elsewhere that what is needed is a new paradigm standing between binary compliance analysis and a more developmental approach.  The report’s proposals for improving goal setting and results monitoring can help promote more realistic sequencing of treaty implementation.

The GEO provides useful data on ODA and financing for treaty secretariats. The clarity of this data underscores the need for complete reporting on financial flows for different multilateral treaties to understand whether emphases and priorities are sensible and whether they correspond to the relative urgency of the problems they address.

More work to be done

The message of the GEO is clear. Despite some positive developments, existing methods are not working. As I will discuss in a subsequent post, the Rio conference generated few solutions to this problem. The task of developing new approaches to achieving effectiveness for multilateral environmental accords remains a work in progress.

Tags: adaptiveness,Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA),UNEP Global Environmental Outlook