Why the world needs a new ‘green’ agenda

Why the world needs a new ‘green’ agenda

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The environment will be center stage at this week’s virtual UN meetings of world leaders, but it is clear that global processes to put the world on a more sustainable path need a serious injection of political urgency.  

That greenhouse gas emissions are rising, deforestation is accelerating and biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate was addressed as recently as Friday, when UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held a virtual “Sustainable Development Goals Moment” with political and business leaders across the globe.  Briefing on his “vision for a decade of action and recovering better from COVID-19,” Guterres acknowledged that our collective response had been limited, and this must change.

What is badly needed is a new generation of environmental agreements that are more robust, ambitious, inclusive and, ultimately, more effective. Governments have traditionally led the UN negotiations process, butthey cannot do it all by themselves given the monumental scale of the challenge, and other players from the public, private and third sectors must now enter the arena to ensure delivery of what is required.

First, environment ministers are often prevented by energy, economy and finance ministries from signing up to ambitious commitments.  One only has to look at the change in the prioritization of environment policies during the last financial crisis from 2008 onward to see how quickly traditional short-term priorities take precedence.  A broader national political consensus must be reached, involving the private and third sectors.  

Second, governments change.  Commitments made by one administration can be quickly washed away following an election. 

And third, there is no credible enforcement of globally legally binding agreements.  No country has faced prohibitive penalties for not implementing a promised reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, or rate of deforestation.

This underlines that a new way of addressing these issues is urgently needed; one that builds a common understanding, creates domestic political support for action across political divides, reduces the risk of commitments being overturned after elections, and increases prospects for implementation.

One way to achieve this is a greater focus on moving from global agreements to national legislation, specifically requirements to put into domestic laws, within a set timeframe, commitments made in supranational processes.  Domestic legislation, particularly when supported by cross-party politicians, is more durable than a commitment made at global forums. In most, if not all, countries there is stronger compliance with domestic laws than with global commitments because non-compliance with domestic legislation opens up governments to legal challenge.

This has clear implications for the way global environmental processes are constructed.  And with a different approach to such negotiations, there is an opportunity for a new generation of global agreement to emerge built on the solid foundations of national legislation.  

Effective national laws are possible only if legislators are integrated into formal negotiations.  Thus far their involvement in the UN negotiations on climate change, for example, is mixed.  

The environment will be center stage at this week’s virtual UN meetings of world leaders, but it is clear that global processes to put the world on a more sustainable path need a serious injection of political urgency.  

Andrew Hammond

Some countries (for example, Brazil and Germany) allow lawmakers to be part of the official country delegations to the UN processes.  Others (for example the UK) bar MPs from such delegations; if they attend, they are classified as observers, a comparable status with students or campaign groups, with limited access to the real negotiations.  This is far from the best way to ensure an effective national response, with broad political support and legal underpinning, to the international process.

This is not a call for yet another group to be at the negotiating table; rather for recognition that, for a new generation of UN environmental agreements to succeed, it is imperative to engage the constituency that has the legitimacy and authority to create the necessary national governance structures. 

The benefits of fully engaging legislators do not stop at the laws themselves.  Well informed lawmakers are better placed to effectively oversee implementation of national legislation, strengthening the chances of meeting commitments made in international forums.

So it’s surely time for the international community to recognize the importance of legislators, and national laws.  First, include a requirement that all countries must put into national laws their commitments in global environmental laws within a fixed period (e.g. 24 months) of agreements being reached.  

Second, require that key legislators be part of the official country delegations to UN sustainable development negotiations, or create a special new category of accreditation for lawmakers to provide access to negotiations to enable them to better fulfil their scrutiny and governance responsibilities.

Third, national governance structures on the environment should also be strengthened by heads of government, relevant ministers and lead negotiators being required to report back to their legislatures. This should be undertaken both on the national positions going into the negotiations, and the reporting back on the outcomes. Parliaments should also be the focus of national debates involving key stakeholders to consult on the nature of the respective national responses.

The time is ripe for a new generation of international agreements that better harness the power of national lawmakers. If legislators are properly engaged, they alongside others from the private and third sectors can help create the foundation for genuine global sustainable development for billions across the world in the decades to come.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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