A mentor of mine once told me that just because a major problem exists doesn’t mean governments will mobilize to do anything about it. I recalled this pertinent quote upon the conclusion of the latest round of international climate change negotiations in Egypt last month. As frustrating as the non-outcome of the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) was, it’s no reason for despair. Something similar might be said concerning the non-outcome seen at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in August. If the climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation challenges have anything in common, it’s that they’re both major problems that seem left perpetually unresolved by governments purportedly committed to resolving them. But resolve them they must. Perhaps nuclear diplomacy can learn from environmental diplomacy, and vice-versa, if only to inch governments closer to resolutions.
As a long-time observer of environmental diplomacy and student of how multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) work, including seven years spent witnessing negotiations at the United Nations, the way COP27 closed came as no surprise to me. But as with the threat posed by the ever-expanding number of nuclear weapons in the world, humanity must solve the threat of global warming. A more careful reading and appreciation for how governments cooperate to solve major problems like these may boost our chances of future progress.
One must be careful here, however. Nuclear diplomacy and environmental diplomacy are fundamentally different in key aspects — an approach that works for one could prove disastrous for the other. But I thought I might share a bit of how MEA negotiations and treaties work with an audience of nuclear policy experts, if only for the slight probability that trained eyes might find clues that could improve chances for a successful outcome at the next NPT Review Conference in 2026.
The devil in the MEA details
Very generally speaking, MEAs perform one, two, or all of three primary functions: (1) they assign rights of access to resources, (2) they establish information-sharing regimes, and/or (3) they set up clever ways to encourage governments to protect the environment on their sovereign territories. The world’s most successful environmental treaties are restricted to operating in one or more of these three primary modes. The least successful and failed MEAs attempt to go beyond these guardrails as those negotiators failed to take into account the facts underpinning when and why governments conclude and enforce successful MEAs.
Why are successful MEAs limited to allocating resource access rights, establishing information-sharing regimes, and simply encouraging better environmental performance? Because the realities of modern multilateral diplomacy determine this. In negotiating MEAs the threat of force or violence is never on the table — Australia will not attack New Zealand because New Zealand refuses to abide by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Thus, in an environment where no state would ever contemplate violence to enforce an environmental treaty, UN member states have discovered that convincing one another to join MEAs necessitates that these agreements meet three conditions: participation in them must be inexpensive or free; they must require very little in the way of compliance; and they must never impose penalties for non-compliance, whether deliberate or accidental. Below, I briefly explain how a few of the most successful MEAs operate.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) assigns rights to areas of resource access through its provisioning of exclusive economic zones. The Convention also established UN bodies tasked with provisioning resource access rights to areas of the high seas while ensuring that benefits derived from resource exploitation are shared with all states, including landlocked countries. Per the Law of the Sea, Canada may one day be technically required to share oil production royalties from the offshore Bay du Nord project with landlocked developing countries, but there’s no way to penalize Ottawa if it doesn’t. UNCLOS parties gain much, and give little.
The Basel Convention governing the cross-boundary transport of hazardous wastes established an information-sharing regime. Companies looking to export wastes from one country to another must inform the receiving country of the incoming shipment if both countries are parties to Basel. The receiving country can then accept or reject the shipment. Basel succeeds because the treaty essentially makes governments smarter and gives them better control over their borders while putting the burden of compliance entirely on exporters and importers. Penalties for violations are levied on companies and individuals, not on governments.
UNESCO’s World Heritage program encourages countries to protect natural areas from pollution and development. Aside from the prestige gained by hosting Natural or Mixed World Heritage sites, the UNESCO seal of approval also promises access to funding and scientific advice, not to mention a huge boost to international tourism. The application process can be a chore, but UNESCO has experts on hand to help free of charge. The program succeeds because nations gain much without giving up any of their sovereignty.
Lessons for NPT diplomacy?
What lessons do these examples hold for nuclear non-proliferation talks? I’m not entirely sure — perhaps they are only discernible when one reads between the lines. First, caution is in order.
Again, environmental diplomacy works as described above because the threat of violence is off the table. This certainly isn’t the case with nuclear diplomacy—violence has been threatened and used in response to perceived nuclear proliferation threats. The stakes are also different. Climate change is a national security threat, but states don’t see it as an immediate one. The same can’t be said for nuclear proliferation. So, if there are any clues to be had from environmental agreements, perhaps they can be gleaned from the way MEAs expose the behaviour of states as they enter into negotiations.
After the Kyoto Protocol agreement collapsed — emission reduction targets, where they even existed, were never met — states answered with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the stepping stone for COP27. “Binding” emissions reduction targets are now out because past MEAs demonstrate that governments are unwilling to accept internationally imposed goals (when they face no violent consequences, at least). There are no penalties for ignoring Paris or for a nation entirely missing its stated emission reduction goals. The Paris accord requires very little of its signatories, which is why so many nations were happy to sign on. All the agreement really asks of its members (never requires as, again, there are no enforcement provisions) is that they do their best to lower their output of greenhouse gases and then share notes periodically in a “name and shame” exercise designed to encourage better environmental performance within their sovereign territories.
The Paris Agreement is frustratingly limited and weak, but it’s the inevitable result of some four decades of successive failures in international climate change negotiations. Had UN member states paid better attention to the lessons of successful MEAs they may have saved themselves an enormous amount of time and resources.
But here’s a lesson nuclear diplomacy probably shouldn’t learn from environmental diplomacy: the potential problem of too many cooks in the kitchen.
The most successful MEAs were concluded by the fewest number of states. The Antarctic Treaty was originally negotiated and signed by just twelve countries. Only ten nations drafted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Later signatories were faced with terms already agreed to by the original drafters and given few or no opportunities to dilute text, the fate ultimately suffered by the Convention on Biological Diversity. At the UN, I’ve witnessed instances of diplomats demanding the number of voices at environmental negotiations be expanded because they knew this would increase the chances of talks failing, which was their government’s ultimate goal. I’ve long argued that real progress on global warming would be attainable if the negotiations were kept to just the Group of 20 states. Past precedents show fewer negotiators improve chances of success, and governments’ ultimate acquiescence to the weak Paris Agreement after four decades of failed climate negotiations all but proves this point.
Narrowing the number of negotiators works in environmental diplomacy but perhaps not in nuclear diplomacy, at least in the case of the NPT. Mass participation is the entire point of having near universal ascension to the NPT — the majority non-nuclear-weapons states parties bring to bear the pressure essential to pressing NPT nuclear-weapons states to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons arsenals. Reducing the number of active voices at the NPT Review Conferences could be badly counterproductive.
Despite the very important differences between the two modes of diplomacy, do the facts underpinning success stories like CITES or UNCLOS offer any clues to help the non-proliferation agenda get back on its feet? Perhaps, or perhaps not. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide, and we anyway have four years until the next NPT Review Conference to consider such questions.
About the Author
Nathanial Gronewold is the Senior Communications Adviser at APLN and Assistant Professor of International Relations and Environmental Studies at a small private university in Japan where he continues to teach part-time. He’s the author of two books, Anthill Economics: Animal Ecosystems and the Human Economy and the forthcoming A Tale of Two Cranes: Lessons Learned from 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act.
Nate is a veteran international journalist and communications professional. For seven years, Nate was a resident correspondent at United Nations Headquarters in New York. His articles appeared in Scientific American, Science, Asian Scientist, The Economist, and The New York Times, including features from Canada, Colombia, Haiti, Japan, Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Nations, and the United States. His writing won seven journalism honors, including two U.S. National Press Club awards and three United Nations Correspondents Association prizes. Prior to reporting, Nate worked in Tokyo as a contract foreign press communications consultant to the Japanese government.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Delegates celebrate the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on climate change at the 2015 Conference of Parties in Paris, France. UN Climate Change.