Pledges can work, but it will take international law to fight climate change

Protesters in New York ahead of the UN climate summit. AAP Image/NEWZULU/ANDRE RIVERA

Do we need a climate treaty, or could a simple political deal based on national pledges work just as well?

Conventional wisdom suggests that the only international climate deal worth having is one that is “legally-binding”. In other words, a treaty which binds states to their commitments under international law.

This wisdom is touted by academics, activists and politicians alike. Even Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit this week is working towards a legal deal at the next major climate conference in Paris, 2015.

Whether simple national pledges could work instead is an important question to ask, since that is exactly where the negotiations are heading.

A history of climate failure

The climate negotiations have struggled on for 20 years now, with little to show in terms of actual emissions reductions. A key problem is that the negotiations are seeking a treaty-based outcome. Unfortunately, the world’s superpower and second largest emitter — the US — requires a two thirds majority vote in the politically-divided Senate to ratify an international treaty.

For climate change, this has proven to be impossible, as illustrated by the failure of the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted that the Obama administration is attempting to craft a politically-binding “climate accord”. That is, a deal that would not be legally-binding and thus, would not require Senate ratification.

Instead it would be a system whereby countries put forward self-determined carbon reduction targets based on domestic legislation. These pledges would then be regularly reviewed, and hopefully, scaled up over time. The idea has been met with uproar.

But, is such an approach necessarily a bad idea?

When politics trumps law

Legal treaties are also slow and cumbersome affairs. The process of “ratification”, which happens after the actual agreement, can take anywhere up to and beyond five years.

By comparison, political “pledges” offer a number of theoretical advantages. First, because they don’t need ratification they can be agreed upon and implemented much more quickly.

Second, countries are not bound by their targets. So, they are more likely to take on ambitious commitments without any fear of being reprimanded for not meeting them.

Importantly, the model of pledge and review has had success previously: strong international action to combat and eliminate Tuberculosis (TB) was based on exactly this.

What the climate fight can learn from tuberculosis

At the 1991 World Health Assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO) countries from around the world made a voluntary agreement to eliminate TB.

The WHO crafted a new plan of reaching a 70% detection rate and 85% cure rate for TB. While these suggestions were heeded, the end agreement decided that the targets for each country was a national decision. No top-down framework or form of international law was imposed.

While it may have been voluntary, it produced results. A recent WHO report notes that TB rates per capita and annual cases have been falling over the last decade and the mortality rate has declined by 40% since 1990.

One report argues that what both of these examples have in common, asides from their voluntary nature, was strong monitoring reporting and verification (or “MRV” as it is called in diplomatic speak). It meant that countries knew where they were succeeding or going wrong, and importantly they faced international pressure when they were not doing their fair share.

Countries care about their reputation; the threat of being an international pariah can be a powerful motivator.

Our past shows us that political pledges can often be just as good as legal contract, or at times, even better. Yet, every international issue has a distinctive character. Pledges have worked well for TB and some financial and security matters (such as the 1975 Helsinki Accords), but would it be sufficient for addressing climate change?

Unfortunately, I fear not.

Climate change needs something stronger

While Tuberculosis is similar in being a global issue with severe repercussions for human health, climate change is an altogether different kind of beast.

Tuberculosis had a relatively cost effective and easily implemented treatment, mitigating and adapting to climate change requires deep structural changes to our economy and society. Tuberculosis had a decent degree of political consensus around it, climate change is politically divisive and action runs against many vested interests, particularly the fossil fuel lobby.

Not to mention that countries such as ourselves and Canada have an unfortunate reputation for backtracking on our climate commitments. Thanks to Abbott and others, trust is now a scarce resource in the climate negotiations.

With all of this in mind, pledges just might not be adequate. Instead, when we look at the international response to issues with the same scope and depth as climate, they are treaties with strong enforcement.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has had a profound impact and reshaped global trade towards neoliberalism. It has done so by international law, underlined by a dispute settlement mechanism which makes use of trade restrictions.

The Montreal Protocol is the poster child for international environmental treaties since it quickly and effectively dealt with the problem of global ozone depletion. The ozone problem is the closest mimic we have to global warming, and it took a legal treaty with strong financial and trade-based carrots and sticks to deal with it.

The past shows us that intentional, transformational change is rarely driven by voluntary or egalitarian ideals. Instead, it is underpinned by mutual material incentives and coercion.

Pledges are a start, but are not enough

A pledge and review system will make a difference, and that may very well be the difference between 3 degrees in comparison to 4 or 5 degrees C of warming. And it offers a feasible and quick solution to get the US on board and move forward.

But existing national pledges are consistent with a 4, or even 6, degrees C rise in temperature. It would be very risky to assume that international pressure would be enough to bridge the gap between pledges currently on the table and what is necessary.

Pledges would, in essence, be playing roulette with future generations.

Staying below 2 degrees will require a legal treaty with enforcement. The choice the world now faces is whether to accept a useful, yet likely insufficient, pledge based approach, or find a way of having a climate treaty without US ratification.