Who will ensure compliance with the Glasgow climate commitments?

The news from Glasgow includes positive announcements, in particular agreements to curb deforestation, cut methane emissions, “phase down” coal use and, next year, more aggressive emissions reduction targets. But a disturbing history of broken global climate promises — going back decades — compels us to ask: Will countries comply with their commitments, and what happens if they don’t?

In 2015, the Conference of the Parties (COP) climate meeting in Paris also ended with high aspirations and strong commitments. French President Francois Hollande called it a “major leap for mankind” as 196 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement and pledged to adopt greenhouse gas emission targets to limit global warming to less than 2⁰ Centigrade. 

Six years later, the Paris celebration looks premature. In October, the U.N. Environment Program released a report noting that even if all Paris pledges are kept, they are “highly insufficient” to limit global warming to 2⁰C, let alone a more aggressive 1.5⁰C target. Even more troubling, none of the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters is complying with their Paris commitments. The non-profit Climate Action Tracker, which monitors the Paris commitments, recently found that only one country, Gambia, has adopted policies that would fully implement its Paris commitments. All others, including the U.S., have fallen short, particularly related to international climate finance. 

So, what are we to make of the promises emerging from Glasgow, and what can be done if countries – yet again — fail to live up to their commitments? The problem is both structural and political. All responsible national leaders know their countries will be better off if emissions are curtailed, but no individual nation will be better off if it incurs the cost of environmental compliance while others don’t. Manufacturing will move offshore to countries with weaker environmental requirements. Oil-drilling and coal-mining nations will continue to extract carbon from the ground, enriching themselves, while imposing environmental costs on their neighbors. Without an effective compliance mechanism, bad actors — and national leaders — face few consequences.

Ensuring compliance with international agreements has frustrated both injured parties and diplomats for decades, but experience has demonstrated that a credible court or dispute resolution tribunal can help hold nations to their commitments.

For decades, international trade disputes were settled through bilateral negotiations and enforced by unilateral action and, often, retaliation. However, in 1994, the international community established the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organization. Since then, more than 600 disputes have been submitted to this arbitration tribunal for settlement. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that the U.S. has won — or favorably settled — more than 90 percent of the cases it has brought before the tribunal. Likewise, 29 cases have been submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was established in 1982, and, according to researchers at the National University of Singapore, the vast majority of decisions have been successfully implemented. Similarly, 181 cases have been brought before the International Court of Justice since it was established in 1946, with increasing levels of compliance as the decades have passed. None of these dispute settlement bodies can take formal enforcement actions against either countries or their leaders, but all have been increasingly effective in drawing public attention to broken promises, creating pressure for negotiated resolution, and clarifying standards of good conduct.

The concept of an international court to rule on environmental matters is not new, but in the follow-up to Glasgow, the time to create one is now.

An effective tribunal must be recognized for the impartiality of its members, the expertise of its staff, the scope of its jurisdiction, and the wisdom of its proposed remedies. While no international body can impose its will on a country unwilling to comply, history has shown that international courts can, at least, be effective in focusing the court of public opinion. 

Every year, the international community comes together for another climate COP. Every year, the public focuses for two intense weeks on the commitments required to successfully address climate change and, increasingly, the failures of national leaders to carry them out. And every year we get further behind in addressing the climate crisis. The time has come for an international climate tribunal.

Scott Brown is founder of New Energy Capital, a clean energy project investment fund, and a founding member of the Harvard Negotiation Project. From 1998-2005, he was a member of the Advisory Council of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Dan Reicher is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Woods Institute and a senior director at the Climate Adaptive Infrastructure Fund. He was previously director of climate and energy initiatives at Google, Department of Energy assistant secretary and chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and a member of the Obama administration’s transition team and secretary of energy advisory board.

Tags Climate change Climate change policy COP26 Environment funding commitment Glasgow international courts Paris agreement Tribunal United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

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