Climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity is likely to face over the coming decades. Experts predict that climate change will lead to political instability, mass displacement, armed conflict and the rise of increasingly nationalist governments, making it an issue of extreme importance in global politics.
In order to avoid climate change’s most catastrophic impacts, scientists suggest mitigation efforts to limit the global average temperature from increasing above 2.0ºC. Despite this recommendation, attempts to mitigate emissions have thus far been ineffective.
One explanation for this failure is that climate change is a tragedy of the commons. The atmosphere is a global commons, a resource which requires cooperation and enforcement to be managed sustainably. However, states have so far failed to devise an approach which simultaneously promotes effective cooperation and includes an overarching enforcement mechanism. Consequently, the states have acted out of self-interest, striving to maximize their own economic growth, rather than acting in the common-interest by reducing emissions to reduce the rate of global warming.
Another explanation for the failure to mitigate emissions sufficiently is the way humanity currently perceives its place in the world. Much of humanity currently views nature as a resource there for us to exploit and profit from, and believes that human society operates separately from nature. This way of thinking has prevented us from grasping the implications of burning vast quantities of fossil fuels. In order to tackle climate change effectively, humanity must realize that we are part of nature.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol marked the international community’s first major attempt to mitigate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The Protocol distinguishes between Annex 1 states (developed countries) and developing countries, and only sets legally binding commitments for the former. These Annex 1 countries were required to reduce their emissions by 5% below 1990 levels after the first commitment period from 2008 to 2012. To achieve this target, the Kyoto Protocol established several market mechanisms, including an international emissions trading scheme.
The idea was that developed countries were the ones largely responsible for historic emissions and that they had a greater technological and financial capacity to transition to low carbon economies. However, many developed countries have argued that this was an unfair burden. Only binding Annex 1 countries to emission reductions allowed other big contributors, such as China and India, to take no responsibility for their rapidly increasing emissions. Consequently, the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and Canada pulled out in 2011. Several other Annex 1 countries have also refused to sign up for the second commitment period.
The 2016 Paris Agreement recognized some of the Kyoto Protocol’s failures and took a different approach to climate change mitigation. The Agreement does not attempt to give separate responsibilities to developed and developing countries, instead stating that all countries share a common but differentiated responsibility in addressing climate change. Each country is required to set its own nationally-determined commitments (N.D.C.s). These N.D.C.s are voluntary to encourage countries to be more ambitious.
However, these N.D.C.s are not enforceable, meaning that countries cannot be held accountable for failing to adhere to their N.D.C.s. As a result, there is little incentive for countries to act in the common interest. The Paris Agreement fails to address the key factor preventing countries from reducing emissions, which is that there is no enforceable management strategy to regulate the use of the atmosphere.
A new initiative must be enacted in the geopolitical arena to internalize the negative externalities produced by climate change. All actors who contribute to climate change should be informed about its repercussions and should view mitigation as a long-term growth strategy. These actors must create an independent oversight body to assess climate risk management, composed of climate scientists, public health experts, and environmentalists. Using the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this body can assess targets and actions taken by actors, state and non-state, in the global political arena. Actors will be required to disclose climate risk information to this entity, therefore facilitating the exchange of information, data, analysis, and methodology between parties and fomenting multilateralism. When all actors are informed and transparency exists, there is an incentive to collaborate, which reduces free riding. In addition, actors will be politically involved, empowering them to deliver speedy and scaled responses for climate reform.
The information this proposed body gathers can be used to create a monetary taxation mechanism, in which actors failing to adhere to the agreement will pay to internalize the negative externality – this will legitimize the agreement and provide accountability. The revenue gathered in this way should be injected back into sustainability efforts, which the International Monetary Fund can assess. I recommend that the Global Framework of Climate Services convene with United Nations institutions to build a platform where actors disclosing information to the independent body can share information amongst themselves and co-develop safe practices.
Climate change is a tragedy of the commons which produces negative externalities on the whole world. Efforts to mitigate climate change in the past three decades have failed to produce the necessary outcomes: the Kyoto Protocol failed in distributive justice, while the Paris Agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism, enabling actors to free ride. If the system is not reformed, actors will not be able to respond to the risks climate change poses to the environment, politics, and society, and the United Nations will fail at their mission: to maintain international peace, rights, and security.
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