Can the world save the world?

Published : 11 Mar 2023 08:52 PM

The United Nations has convened 27 conferences on climate change. For nearly three decades, the international community has come together at a different location every year to pool its collective wisdom, resources, and resolve to address this global threat. These Conferences of Parties (COPs) have produced important agreements, such as the Paris Accords of 2015 on the reduction of carbon emissions and most recently at Sharm el-Sheikh a Loss & Damage Fund to help countries currently experiencing the most impact from climate change.

And yet the threat of climate change has only grown larger. In 2022, carbon emissions grew by nearly 2 percent.

This failure is not for want of institutions. There’s the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which oversees the complex of international treaties and protocols, helps implement climate financing, and coordinates with other agencies to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has marshaled all the relevant scientific data and recommendations. The Green Climate Fund is attempting to funnel resources to developing countries to advance their energy transitions. The Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, begun in 2020 at the instigation of the Biden administration, has been focusing on reducing methane. International financial institutions like the World Bank have their own staff devoted to global energy transition efforts.

Still, with the notable exception of the global effort to repair the ozone layer, more institutions have not translated into better results.

On climate change, notes Miriam Lang. a professor of environmental and sustainability studies at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar in Ecuador and a member of the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South, “it seems that the more we know, the less we are able to take effective action. The same can be said about the accelerated loss of biodiversity. We live in an era of mass extinctions, and there’s been little progress at the governance level despite many good intentions.”

One major reason for the failure of collective action is the persistent refusal to think beyond the nation-state. “It’s weird that nationalism has become so dominant when the challenges that we face are global,” observes Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We know that these problems can’t be regulated within national borders. Yet governments and people within countries persist in treating these crises as ways in which one nation can benefit at the expense of another.”

Another challenge is financial. “Adequate funding at all levels is a fundamental prerequisite to improving climate governance and the implementation of sustainable development goals,” argues Jens Martens, executive director of the Global Policy Forum Europe. “At a global level, this requires predictable and reliable funding for the UN system. The total assessed contributions to the UN regular budget in 2022 were just about $3 billion. In comparison, the New York City budget alone is over $100 billion.”

In part because of these budgetary shortfalls, international institutions have increasingly relied on what they call “multistakeholderism.” On the face of it, the effort to bring other voices into policymaking at the international level—the various “stakeholders”—sounds eminently democratic. The inclusion of civil society and popular movements is certainly a step in the right direction, as is the incorporation of the perspectives of academics.

But multistakeholderism has also meant bringing business on board, and corporations have the money not only to underwrite global meetings but to determine the outcomes.

 “I was at Sharm el-Sheikh in November,” recalls Madhuresh Kumar, an Indian activist-researcher currently based in Paris as a Senior Fellow at Atlantic Institute. “We were welcomed at the airport by a banner that read ‘Welcome to Cop 27.’ And it listed the main partners: Vodaphone, Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, IBM, Cisco, Coca Cola and so on. Most UN institutions face a growing monetary problem. But this monetary problem is not actually at the crux of the issue. It is astonishing how through multistakeholderism, which has evolved over the last four decades, corporations have captured multilateral institutions, the global governance space, and even the big International NGOs.” He adds that 630 energy lobbyists were registered at COP 27, a 25 percent increase from the previous year’s meeting.

The challenges facing global governance are well known, whether it’s nationalism, funding, or corporate capture. Less clear is how to overcome these challenges. Can existing institutions be transformed to more adequately address the global problems of climate change and economic development? Or do we need different institutions altogether? These were the questions addressed at a recent webinar on global governance sponsored by Global Just Transition.

Global Shortcomings

Transforming the current system of global governance around climate, energy, and economic development is like trying to repairing an ocean liner that has sprung multiple leaks in the middle of its voyage with no land in sight. But there’s an additional twist: all the crew members have to agree on the proposed fixes.

Jayati Ghosh is a member of the new UN High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. “The challenge is in its very title,” Ghosh explains. “Multilateralism itself is under threat in part because it hasn’t been effective. But also the imbalances that are rendering it ineffective are not likely to go away any time soon. We’re all aware of this on the board. But without much broader political will, there’s a limit to any given individual or group proposals.”

In addition to nationalism, she believes that four other broad “isms” have prevented a cooperative response to the global problems facing the planet. Take imperialism, for instance, which Ghosh prefers to define “as the struggle of large capital over economic territories when supported by nation-states. We see evidence of that in continuous subsidies of fossil fuels or the greenwashing of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments. The ability of large capital to sway international policies and national politics in its own interests persists unabated. That’s a major constraint to doing anything serious about climate change.”

Short-termism is another such constraint. In the wake of the Ukraine war, food and fuel corporations sought to profit in the short term by manufacturing a sense of scarcity. The rise in fuel and food prices, Ghosh notes, were created not so much by constraints on supply, but from market imperfections and control over markets by large corporations. That short-term profiteering in turn led to equally short-sighted decisions by the most powerful countries to reverse their previous climate commitments and make fewer such commitments at the last COP in Egypt. Politicians “reversed those commitments because they have midterm elections coming up,” she points out. “They’re worried that voters will support the far right, so they argue that they have to do whatever it takes to increase fuel supplies.”

Classism, in various forms of inequality, has also prevented effective action. “Globally, the top 10 percent, the rich, are responsible for one third to more than one half of all carbon emissions,” Ghosh notes. “Even within countries that is the case. The rich have the power to influence national government policies to ensure that they continue to take the bulk of the carbon budget of the world.”

Finally, she points to “status-quo-ism,” by which she means the tyranny of the international economic architecture, not only the legal and regulatory framework but also the associated global agreements and institutions. “We really have to reconsider the role played by international financial institutions, by the World Trade Organization, the multilateral development banks, and legal frameworks like economic partnership agreements and bilateral investment treaties that actually prevent governments from doing something about climate change,” she argues.

One way of addressing especially these last four obstacles is to reverse privatization. “The privatizations of the last three decades have been absolutely critical in generating both inequality and more aggressive carbon emissions globally,” Ghosh concludes. She urges the return of utilities, cyberspace, even land to the public sphere.

Revisiting Sustainable Develo­pment

In 2015, the UN endorsed 17 sustainable development goals. These SDGs include pledges to end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities within and among countries, protect human rights and promote gender equality, and protect the planet and its natural resources. But climate change, COVID, and conflicts like the war in Ukraine have all pushed the SDG targets further from reach—and made them considerably more expensive to achieve.

 “The implementation of the 2030 agenda is not just a matter of better policies,” observes Jens Martens. “The current problems of growing inequality and unsustainable models of consumption and production are deeply connected with powerful hierarchies and institutions. Policy reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It will require more sweeping shifts in how and where power is vested. A simple software update is not enough. We have to revisit and reshape the hardware of sustainable development.”

In terms of governance, this means strengthening bottom-up approaches. “The major challenge for more effective global governance is a lack of coherence at the national level,” Martens continues. “Any attempt to create more effective global institutions will not work if it’s not reflected in effective national counterparts. For instance, as long as environmental ministries are weak at the national level we cannot expect UNEP to be strong at the global level.”

Stronger local and national institutions, however, operate within what Martens calls a “disabling environment” where, for instance, “the IMF’s neoliberal approach has proven incompatible with the achievement of the SDGs as well as the climate goals in many countries. IMF recommendations and loan conditionalities have led to a deepening of social and economic inequalities.” Also disabling is the disproportionate power wielded by international financial institutions. “One striking example is the Investor-State Dispute settlement system, which awards investors the right to sue governments, for instance, for environmental policies that reduce profits,” he notes. “This system undermines the ability of governments to implement stronger domestic regulations of fossil fuel industries or to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.”

(To be continued) 

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared. Source: Foreign Policy In Focus