Environmental Diplomacy - Global conventions

Beginning in the 1950s, thanks largely to United Nations activism and pressure from countries emerging from decolonization, the nations of the world began to gather in huge conferences to discuss truly global issues. One of the first of these grand global conferences was the 1958 meeting of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and over the next forty years it would be followed by several major attempts to unite the scores of nations of the world on key issues of diplomacy. In these discussions, the United States gradually found itself losing influence and often choosing not to lead. As environmentalism gathered steam in the 1970s, it served as a force to criticize the consumerism of the United States and its role in the Cold War, which helped push the U.S. government away from a leadership role. In addition, the United States found that its sheer power, and ties to former colonial powers, made it a target of developing nations more often than their leader.

The law of the sea negotiations started out with a focus on navigation, although marine resources were never far below the surface of the agenda. In fact, while pollution and fisheries disputes were important postwar motivators for the UN to call the conference, the aforementioned claim by Ecuador, Peru, and Chile in 1952 to a 200-mile band of territorial waters was one of the most important driving forces. The 200-mile limit was also one of the most controversial issues, as the conferees failed to reach an agreement on territorial waters at either the 1958 meeting or UNCLOS II in 1960. Only with the third meeting, which began in 1972 and ran off and on for ten years, did delegates accept the idea of the 200-mile zone.

The resource issues, which at first seemed fairly straightforward, became increasingly difficult to solve. In 1958, one of the four conventions signed addressed fishing and conservation in territorial waters. But that same conference, and the second one in 1960, failed to come to terms for fishing beyond territorial seas, in part because they failed to agree on a definition of those seas. Even after 1993, when the Law of the Sea Convention went into effect, fishing nations could not agree on regulating the seas beyond the new 200-mile economic zones. While treaties covering some regions and some species are open for signature, nothing has been completed, despite intense pressure from environmentalists to ban such practices as long-line fishing and drift-netting. The surprising incident of 1995, when Canadian warships fired on Spanish fishing vessels just outside of Canada's 200-mile zone, suggests that some sort of law is needed to cover these contested fisheries. And yet, as of 2001, only twenty-nine nations, including the United States, had ratified the supplementary agreement managing straddling and highly migratory fish stocks.

The most controversial point had nothing to do with swimming marine resources, but rather with those that have been lying on the ocean floor for millennia—mineral nodules. In the 1960s companies exploring the seabed discovered areas covered with rocks full of manganese, nickel, copper, and other valuable and reasonably scarce minerals. At UNCLOS III in 1982, governments split dramatically over how companies should get access to these minerals. Developing nations, often referred to as the Group of 77, argued that the minerals were the common property of mankind; therefore, an international agency should control the nodule fields, and companies that wished to exploit them would have to transfer technology to poorer countries and pay hefty fees. The United States and other developed nations countered that resources on the high seas had always been free for the taking by anyone with the capital and fortitude to take the necessary risks.

At UNCLOS III, the conferees adopted language closer to the Group of 77 nations' desires, and the Reagan administration refused to sign the convention solely because of the deep seabed articles. After a further twelve years of negotiations, the United States finally found a Deep Seabed agreement to its liking, in part because zealots on both sides were coming to the conclusion that mining there might never be economically feasible. Not only did the United States ratify the convention in 1994, but by then 159 states had at least signed, meaning that just about every national government in the world offered some form of support for the Law of the Sea Convention. When one considers that the UN has forty-two landlocked members, the signature count is especially impressive.

By the 1970s the huge meetings to discuss some global issue had become common, and in fact it is now hard to imagine a year without some grand conference sponsored by the UN. The factors that made such conferences more feasible, such as improvements in air travel, applied of course to environmental conferences, which were themselves furthered by both the strong wave of environmentalism sweeping around the world and the growing sense that some resources were simply the common heritage of humanity and therefore within the purview of all nations, not just a privileged few. Not only did new conventions and conferences come together, but membership rose dramatically in some old organizations, such as the IWC, which grew from fewer than twenty members to more than fifty in a few years. Not surprisingly, then, the 1970s witnessed a slew of conferences to deal with global issues, such as trade in endangered species, wetlands protection, and the general condition of the human environment.

None drew more attention than the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm, Sweden. The UN had sponsored large meetings on resource conservation and protection in 1949 and 1968, but they had been limited in their scope. In 1969 the UN accepted Sweden's proposal to host a global conference on the human environment, broadly defined. When delegates from 114 countries and 500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) met in 1972, they ensured that the environment would have a prominent place on the diplomatic agenda for decades to come.

As one might expect, UNCHE had both its share of conflicts and cooperation. The first conflict came from the decision of the organizers to invite West Germany but not East Germany, which triggered a boycott from the Soviet bloc. Of course, that conflict contributed to the easing of negotiations by removing most Cold War tensions at the conference. Likewise, developing nations split from their industrialized compatriots in assessing the nature of the threat—was it pollution and the diminution of natural resources, or did economic imbalance lead to the other problems? Again, this disagreement led to some conciliation, as the Western nations agreed in principle that equitable distribution of wealth would lead to a healthier human environment, and both sides agreed that development agencies had to do a better job of considering the environmental impact of their decisions.

In the end, the Stockholm meeting had three practical consequences. First, NGOs gained their status as leaders in environmental diplomacy. Second, the delegates created the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to serve as a global agency for environmental protection. Third, they produced 109 recommendations for action at local, national, and international levels.

With Stockholm as the impetus, in 1973 the United States took one of its last bold leadership steps by sponsoring the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In many ways, it was one final example of exporting conservation strategies, as the U.S. Congress had recently passed a tough new endangered species act that served as an ideological template. The goal of CITES was to halt the commercial exploitation of endangered species, with the hope therefore of pulling them back from the brink of extinction. Nations that joined CITES promised not to allow importation of species declared endangered by any other member of the convention. In addition, CITES had a means for scientists to list species as endangered if the home government failed to do so. Threatened species could be put on a "gray list," which allowed only limited trade. At present, about 5,000 animals and 25,000 plants are listed as protected under the convention. Finally, and most critically, CITES actually included provisions to sanction nations that failed to halt trade in endangered species. The United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Italy have all been punished by CITES, and El Salvador and Equatorial Guinea joined the convention because of sanctions pressure. In all, 154 states are parties to CITES, with the United States holding the distinction of being the first nation to ratify it in 1974.

Despite that rare display of teeth and tusk, CITES still has the problem of any environmental convention. If it enforces the rules strictly, it runs the risk of losing members, who will then be legally free to trade for all of the endangered species parts that they desire. Those who administer such conventions must decide if they would rather bend over backward in the hope of persuading rogue states to abide by the rules eventually, or punish them and hope that global public opinion and political pressure will deter them from leaving the convention. CITES's own evidence suggests that most of its members do not abide by its rules, nor do they wish to be shown the door, which suggests that it can do more than just turning a blind eye to infractions in the hope that nations will slowly develop a willingness to abide by these rules.

One of the holes in CITES was that it said nothing about habitat preservation, a subject covered in a few other treaties. The 1971 Ramsar Agreement required parties to protect at least one wetland of special significance. The convention does provide signatories with the right to revoke protection in case of national emergency, but only if the government provides sufficient compensation in the form of further protection of other sites. While 125 nations had signed on to Ramsar by 2001, they were only slowly getting around to protecting the wetlands in question. In a manner reminiscent of the 1940 Convention on Nature Protection, the wealthy nations that could afford to protect wetlands had already done a great deal of work, whether the United States with its vast system of National Wildlife Refuges or Great Britain with its impressive chain of preserves owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Even so, it took the United States until 1987 to ratify the convention, and it has designated fewer hectares as Ramsar sites than some smaller, poorer countries, such as Tanzania.

In contrast to Ramsar's narrow focus on wetlands, in 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sponsored an agreement to preserve sites of special cultural and natural value, the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The notion of a treaty to protect sites of cultural value dates back to at least the 1950s, but it was a U.S. idea in 1965 to combine cultural and natural sites into a single convention, and the United States was the first nation to ratify the convention in 1973. By 2001, 164 nations had become parties, making it one of the most inclusive pieces of environmental diplomacy. Member states have access to a small pool of money, about $3.5 million annually, to help them plan for listing and protecting sites, but they join mainly for reasons of public opinion and prestige, and 122 nations had listed nearly 700 sites at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The United States is one of the few countries that listed more natural sites than cultural, with eleven of its eighteen being national parks.

In an attempt to follow up on CITES, Ramsar, and the World Heritage conventions, in 1979 the UN opened for signature the Convention on Migratory Species. The negotiators began with a premise that U.S. conservationists had acted upon at the turn of the twentieth century, that migratory animals inherently needed international cooperation for their protection. Parties agree to protect habitat for endangered and threatened species, pass laws to protect them from hunting, and study them to learn more about means of protecting them. Seventy-four nations ratified the agreement, mostly from Europe and Africa. The United States, like Russia and China, did not sign, but U.S. wildlife officials cooperate with policies from the Convention on Migratory Species. This cooperation suggests a recurrent problem, that the U.S. government is especially reluctant to accede to a convention that might override its own laws.

As if exhausted from the spate of treaties in the early 1970s, the world did not create another major piece of environmental diplomacy until the middle of the 1980s, when it tackled the problem of ozone-depleting chemicals. Ozone, a collection of three oxygen atoms, serves as a shield in the upper atmosphere against ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As such, it makes life on earth possible. In the 1970s, scientists theorized that ozone would break apart when it came into contact with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of chemicals widely used in Styrofoam, refrigerants, and aerosol cans. CFCs had been invented in the 1930s, and they seemed like the ideal chemical— inert, nontoxic, cheap, and useful in a variety of ways. But by the 1980s, a move was afoot to ban them based on theoretical concerns.

In a move that surprised many people, the usually antiregulatory Reagan administration vigorously supported efforts to ban CFCs. In part, this position depended on the strong position of U.S. industry to benefit from a ban on CFCs, and perhaps in part it grew from the president's own brush with skin cancer. The first step came in 1985, when delegates from twenty nations met in Vienna and signed the Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which did no more than commit the signatories to unspecified actions to protect the ozone layer. In addition, they agreed that the UN Environment Programme would monitor the ozone layer and conduct research on it. In short, the signatories could agree on nothing more specific than the theory that the ozone layer was probably in trouble. They did, however, agree to a U.S. proposal to meet two years later to create a binding set of rules.

The discussions evolved from multilateral to global in 1987, as delegates from sixty states convened in Montreal. Evidence that humans were somehow eroding the ozone layer was still sparse, as the famed ozone hole over the Antarctic had just recently become known, and its causes were absolutely uncertain. Still, there can be no doubt that the ozone hole had caught the attention of the U.S. public, although the delegates themselves seemed largely unmoved by it—they were driven still by the scientific theories. Over objections from industry in Japan, western Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the United States, the delegates formally named CFCs as the culprits. Through the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, they agreed to cut production of these chemicals in half by 1999.

In retrospect the Montreal Protocol was at once one of the most amazing pieces of environmental diplomacy and obviously flawed. Working largely on complex scientific theory rather than compelling data, diplomats from around the world agreed that a seemingly benign chemical had disastrous potential and therefore had to be curbed dramatically. At the same time, critics pointed out that developing nations, such as India, China, and Brazil, needed CFCs to raise their standards of living, but the convention said nothing about transferring technology to them. Finally, many Europeans condemned the convention as too strict, while many U.S. environmentalists and industrialists worried that it would be unenforceable.

To address this range of concerns, delegates from eighty-one countries met in Helsinki in 1989. With further research showing that the ozone problem was not just theory, they agreed to ban all CFC production by 2000. In addition, they drew up schemes to facilitate technology transfer, and they tightened up the rules. The next year in London they finalized all of the details of these agreements, and in 1992, President George H. W. Bush announced that the United States would eliminate CFC production by 1995.

The U.S. position on the ozone layer makes especially puzzling its general lack of leadership in the 1990s. On the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm meeting, the nations of the world met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Known formally as the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit was supposed to provide leaders a chance to assess and build upon the accomplishments of the 1972 meeting. One of the accomplishments of the meeting was the production of a massive document, known as Agenda 21, as a follow-up to the 1972 recommendations for action. In addition to the thousands of activists who attended on their own, 170 nations sent delegations, many led by their head of state, but President Bush publicly vacillated about attending. Rather than taking an opportunity for leadership, Bush was concerned that he might find himself boxed into an uncomfortable position. In the end, he paid a brief visit, but he was unable either to rally other nations to his positions or even tame the dissent within the U.S. delegation.

On two important issues the United States found itself out of step with the majority of the world's governments. First, and perhaps most controversially, the conferees agreed to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UN Environment Programme had been working on this convention for four years, goaded by alarming reports of the extinction of hosts of species, many of which had never been scientifically catalogued. The final convention required signatory nations to take appropriate steps to preserve their own biodiversity, and it established a fund for helping poorer countries do just that. Bush noted that the United States already did more than any other country on both points. The real point of disagreement came with the convention's provisions on biotechnology and intellectual property. In a debate reminiscent of the discussions about minerals on the deep seabed, U.S. officials argued that American companies had far more to lose than gain because the protections for their patents were insufficient. Despite great pressure at home, abroad, and within the U.S. delegation, Bush refused to sign the CBD. A year later, after consulting with both business and environmental leaders on an interpretive statement, President William Jefferson Clinton signed the convention just days before it was closed to signatures. While 186 governments signed the CBD, the United States is one of only seven—including such pariahs as Afghanistan and Yugoslavia—who have not ratified it.

The other major agreement to come out of the Earth Summit was the Framework Convention on Climate Change. As concern about the ozone layer was heating up, scientists began to fear that the Earth itself was heating up because of human economic activity. In particular, they were coming to the conclusion that industrial emission of so-called greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, was resulting in a slow but steady warming of the earth's temperature. By 1989 the UN had endorsed the idea of a convention to curb global warming, and the Rio meeting provided an opportunity to sign an agreement that had been finalized the month before. As usual, there was a split between the developing world and industrialized nations over who should pay for the technological advances necessary to address global warming. In addition, the United States split from its industrialized partners by opposing any hard targets for emissions levels. Without U.S. willingness to commit to anything specific, the convention was necessarily vague. Signatory nations agreed that humans were causing climate change, that more research was necessary, and that they would meet five years later to set specific targets.

In 1997 they convened again at Kyoto, Japan, to update the climate change accord. Each nation received targets for reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses, with the U.S. target set at a 7 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2012. The Kyoto Protocol takes effect when at least fifty-five nations, which in aggregate produce 55 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, ratify it, but as of 2001 only thirty-seven nations had in fact completed the ratification process. While the United States is one of eighty-four states to have signed the protocol, the Clinton administration did nothing to move it forward in the Senate. Once again the split between the developing and industrialized worlds presented an insurmountable obstacle. Under Kyoto, nations such as China and India have to make no firm commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders of those nations argue that they deserve the opportunity to pursue economic growth as the West did before. But many opponents of the protocol in the United States say that they will not accept any agreement that does not commit every nation— and especially the two most populous—to some restrictions. In the fall of 2000, diplomats met at The Hague to iron out differences in the protocol, and they came very close to a deal that would have placated concerns of the United States and some of its allies, notably Canada, Australia, and Japan, by offering credits for the carbon absorption action of forests. European environmentalists took the lead in killing this compromise; within months the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, announced that the United States would no longer work within the Kyoto framework, which his aides described as "dead." Efforts to implement the Kyoto Protocol continued to go forward, but it seemed unlikely that greenhouse gas emissions could be curbed without the enthusiastic support of the United States.

The United States has by no means dropped from its active role in environmental diplomacy, even when various administrations are not strongly committed to environmentalism, and it still uses its power to cajole other countries into such conventions. The administration of the younger Bush surprised many people in the spring of 2001 by signing on to a convention to ban the use of persistent organic pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs. These chemicals have been outlawed in the United States for many years, but U.S. companies still exported them. Instead of focusing on lost export revenue, the administration noted accurately that the convention was necessary to stop these chemicals from winding up in the wind and water currents that bring them to the United States. Likewise, in twelve embassies around the world, the Department of State has recently established centers to promote regional environmental cooperation, which will in turn further the work of the department's Office of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. And yet the action of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations toward the Kyoto Protocol makes clear several points: the United States, because of the sheer size of its economy and the vast cultural influence of its society, is still the most powerful force in environmental diplomacy; it is also now the power most likely to break up potentially stringent conventions; and unless the United States and the two future behemoths, China and India, can bridge their differences there will be little progress on environmental diplomacy. No global agreement on the use of resources can move forward if the prime consumers of resources fail to cooperate.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Environmental Diplomacy forum