International Climate Change Agreements Lack Meaningful Enforcement, Cannon Says

Jon Cannon

Professor Jonathan Cannon on climate change and international institutions

November 23, 2009

International agreements like the Kyoto Protocol helped establish institutions for nations to talk about climate change, but the next step in reducing emissions will require more buy-in from participants, Professor Jonathan Cannon told students at a J.B. Moore Society event Nov. 16.   

“Climate change [may be, as some argue,] the biggest collective action problem that the world has ever faced,” Cannon said. If so, the answer is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed to,” Cannon said, quoting ecologist Garrett Hardin.

Although we see the impact of our energy expenditure worldwide, “We aren’t able to stop ourselves. We go on doing what we now know, or believe, are things that are to the long-term detriment of the earth’s climate system,” he said.

One of the international efforts to reduce global warming, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, was ratified by almost every country in the world in 1994. But because requirements were “unspecified and unquantified, almost nothing happened.” Developed countries did not reduce or limit their greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions continued to grow, he said.

Despite this, Cannon emphasized that the agreement was important in creating a mechanism where members of the Framework Convention meet yearly, institutionalizing their relationship and reinforcing collective responsibility.  

The convention’s shortcomings also led to the creation of a new agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, which set targets and timetables by requiring developed countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

During the Clinton administration, the Senate did not ratify the protocol because there was not meaningful commitment by developing countries, Cannon said.  Later, during the Bush administration, the United States withdrew from the Kyoto process.

Despite Kyoto’s concrete benchmarks, “It doesn’t make any meaningful, game-changing reductions to greenhouse gas emissions.”  Instead, Kyoto created the institutional capacity for reducing emissions on a multinational basis.

“That capacity is going to be very important if we do take the next step and have a truly international agreement,” he said.

Cannon said another opportunity for change will happen in early December, when parties meet at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

“There is new hope with a new administration and new sentiment in Congress that may support climate change policy — new hope, that there might be a sequel to Kyoto that would include the United States,” as well as major developing nations like China and India.

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