Debate: Is a Climate Governance Overhaul Possible?

Today is the day. Another Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change begins. Will it be a good COP, or a bad COP? As the urgency grows with the number of extreme weather events, obviously concrete political progress is desired.

However, there are those who have long believed that the idea of an intergovernmental climate treaty like Kyoto is flawed. Two daring academics argued back in 2007 that it is “The Wrong Trousers” — an instrument that doesn’t fit with political realities. (The paper’s title is a reference to an animated film in which a character gets trapped in robotic pants that take him places he doesn’t want to go.)

And now a big group of experts are saying that to reduce the risk of potential global environmental mayhem requires a scale of reform of international governance similar to that which followed World War II.

These are the (according to their press release, 3,000) academics who are mounting a major science conference in March 2012, leading up to June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit. In the run-up to this week’s COP17 in Durban, South Africa, the Planet Under Pressure consortium last Wednesday released the first five of nine policy briefs on key issues like biodiversity and ecosystem services, food and water security. And a topic running through all is the need to reform environmental governance — from the local level all the way up to the UN.

Prof. Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam, Director of the Earth System Governance Project of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) wrote the policy brief (available in the sidebar on the right) on institutional reform with 29 fellow social scientists and governance experts.

“In the 1940s, large parts of the world lay in ruins amid fears of further political conflict. International systems were inadequate to deal with the global challenges then. Decision-makers created in very short time new organizations and global standards, including the UN, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization), and others,” Biermann explains.

“The governance systems created post-war have helped resolve conflict, promote globalization and spur unprecedented economic growth. Many societies have progressed in the past decades with an increase in well-being,” admits IHDP executive director Anantha Duraiappah.

“The magic question is can this continue? As the world continues to become ever more interdependent we need new forms of governance.”

The how-to nitty gritty

Among several recommendations by the consortium are measures to strengthen the system of international organizations for sustainable development by, for example:

– Upgrading the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to a Council of the UN General Assembly, to handle emerging issues such as water, climate, energy and food security, natural disasters and the linkages among these issues;

– Elevating the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme to the status of the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization — a step that would give it greater authority and more secure funding, and facilitate the creation and enforcement of international regulations and standards;

– Creating special majority voting in decision-making systems when earth-system concerns are at stake.

They also recommend:

– Strengthening national accountability and legitimacy with, for example, mandatory disclosure of accessible, comprehensible and comparable data about government and corporate sustainability performance; and

– Allowing discrimination in world trade law between products on the basis of production processes to encourage investments in cleaner products and services. Such discrimination should be based on multilateral agreement to prevent protectionism.

So, what do you think: Is a climate governance overhaul what has been missing to get the climate action ball rolling? If so, are these measures enough?

If not, what do you think it would take? Or is a more effective system feasible at all?

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Debate 2.0: Is a climate governance overhaul possible? by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.


Join the Discussion

  • marknotaras

    Will an overhaul in global climate governance be possible? In a word? Yes. But not now. This COP will have limited progress. I think it will take at least a decade and up to two for the nation-states of the world to get their acts together. That of course will be too late for us to prevent emissions from stabilising and as a result certain tipping points will occur in the climate system, probably earlier than we think given the lag in climate data. 

    By that time the world will well and truly be focused on adaptation and all countries, not just the small island states and Bangladesh’s of this world who always get mentioned, will be affected. An interesting space to watch will be how democracies handle increasing natural disasters versus autocracies. We have seen how recent examples are not good in neither case e.g. Sizchuan earthquake v Katrina. But overall, poorly governed countries e.g. Pakistan will continue to rely on international and UN support while those with some functioning systems in place, however imperfect e.g. Japan, will be able to rebuild back better. And they will have to.

    This probably sounds defeatist but until the present system of financial buffoonery ceases, we can expect to make the same mistakes again. When it comes to the crunch we humans only start running when we can see the lion. Do we honestly think anything will change?

    Just a hunch.

  • Rian

    In view of how things have built up to the COP17 negotiations in Durban it looks like an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is off the table. So the big countries are stepping back and the whole idea of having a global system to tackling climate change looks under threat. Why do we need the UNFCCC if there is no international agreement? Instead it seems that countries are seeking to have some kind of voluntary system or to get local governments and cities to decarbonize. I don’t think that will work, but there are not enough countries pushing for a binding agreement. 

    It would be amazing if some kind of agreement could be reached and a new instrument was introduced in Durban – it would be a miracle. At the same time, as environmental concerns continue to grow around the world, all the reform proposals that are mentioned above make sense. A stronger UNEP or an upgrade to UN Commission on Sustainable Development are essential. However, none of these proposals are really new. They have been around for a while, with many of the same people pushing them. But will they ever be taken up by the UN member states? Well, it is going to take something pretty big to happen before there are any serious reforms. But what would that be?

  • Kenji Watanabe

    The recommendations by the consortium are based on the lessons from the past COPs and they need to be adopted to strengthen the COP procedures, if not now, in future. 

    I am thinking today’s COP 17 would be successful enough if it could continually provide foundations of climate talk and show us the way to move forward.

    At the end of the day, it is nation states that will implement climate change law and policy. And it will come down to the people in the nation that will finally decide the future. By that I mean without rigorous implementation of national climate change measures,  nothing will be solved. 

    Climate solutions are and will be ultimately based on democracy. It is people’s problem and only people can solve it. We can not fantasize too much about international politics. We can hope for the least out of it and do the best out of it. I think that’s the way it is… 

  • TomWingfield

    I just want to have an idea of whether the upgrade of the UN programmes has the potential of really boosting the legitimacy and effectiveness of these organisations, or if, to phrase it real pessimistic, it will just be more money spent on big programmes and little effective progress “on the ground”. The expectations attached to the UN programmes and agencies are huge, but aren’t they excessive considering the titanic tasks they/we set for them(selves) ?
    UN is roughly meant as a platform for interaction between States, and some other non-governmental actors (with little say in the decisions), a irreplaceable forum for deliberation to replace direct conflicts, to find a common ground for agreement on global/transnational issues. But what is the compliance pull of UN resolutions ? What is the problem-solving capacity of international organisations ? What is their role in all that dynamics towards more sustainability ? What if the agreements that come up continue to be the smallest common denominator (i.e. far from a solution in comparable ‘size’ to the problems) ?

    Majority rule is a good idea, as long as the minority is not composed of major economic and military forces. The lack of sanction (or capacity for its implementation) for non compliance is one side of the problem.

    I just heard an international environmental law teacher saying, States will only agree to a binding commitment when their domestic policies will force them or give them enough legitimacy to do it (the case for the countries remaining in the Kyoto Protocol). In other words, it may in fact all start at the national level where democratic mechanisms (responsibility, accountability, transparency, ..) seem more developed and robust. But how can domestic public opinion grant that legitimacy in industrialised countries when most visible/perceptible effects and damages are located on other continents and delayed in time as for climate change ?

    The general question seems therefore to be who should act first and where (local, regional, international). My biggest hopes lie today with regional and local actions that do not follow the principles of  “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” or “we shall only act if all the others do as well”. They/we just act. It takes political risk to make such a move and today, probably only local and subnational initiatives may count enough people who agree to take that risk.

    The last 2 recommendations mentioned in the article (national accountability and trade law reform) seem the most promising to me.