The UN’s recent 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa, succeeded in renewing the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions. However, the meeting also highlighted the two major problems that plague international environmental negotiations. The first, unscientific skepticism, has an impact on the second: collective-action failure. Ultimately, only legislative bodies have the power to overcome this failure.
Skepticism regarding the need for environmental action arises from the relationship between environmental degradation and per capita income.
According to the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), degradation and pollution increase enormously at the early stages of economic growth. However, above a certain per capita income threshold, that trend reverses itself: At high income levels, economic growth correlates with environmental improvement, leading to the dubious conclusion that it might be possible to achieve sustainable growth without deviating from “business as usual” (maintaining current emissions levels).
This theory informs some countries’ reluctance to commit to the Kyoto Protocol’s second term. It is clearly wrong. The US continues to have the world’s highest per capita emissions levels, at 19 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually, even though average US annual income, at US$42,385 per capita, is also among the highest in the world. Clearly, wealth in itself is no guarantee of reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
Likewise, China’s annual per capita income is US$5,450, but it emits only 4.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person (though, overall, it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases). South Africans earn an average income of US$8,857 per capita, but they emit a disproportionate 9.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person.
Moreover, the EKC perpetuates an erroneous assumption — that environmental damage will not curtail economic growth. In fact, research by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change strongly suggests that a business-as-usual approach would lead to an era of irreversible environmental destruction that would preclude economic growth. We cannot afford such a strategy, especially as the poor would bear the brunt of the resulting climate change.
The educated consensus is that the global climate’s current trajectory must be reversed much more rapidly than business as usual would allow. Here, however, a second set of problems — divergent interests and the complexity of international negotiations — presents itself.
When countries believe that high emissions levels are necessary to economic growth, they naturally become reluctant to agree to any binding protocol that would curtail emissions and thus stifle growth. This leads to a situation in which one participant can prevent the resolution of the larger group’s dilemma.
In 1988, Harvard University’s Robert Putnam wrote a groundbreaking paper called “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” According to Putnam, international diplomacy and domestic politics represent a liberal democracy’s two negotiating levels. A “win-set” occurs when a country’s domestic and international interests harmoniously overlap. This overlap thus represents the room for compromise that countries’ international negotiators have.