International sustainability agreements: What has worked and what is a work in progress

Written By: Auriane Koster, Ph.D., Sustainability Manager

I am writing this blog from across the “pond.” I am sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen in France, a country who just had a potentially world-changing presidential election, thinking about the impact that presidents have on sustainability. Which got me thinking about today’s blog topic: international sustainability agreements! This week’s blog will focus on sustainability at a larger, international scale. In four weeks, I will round out my two-part series by discussing what some specific countries, beyond the US, are doing to integrate sustainability.

What is the one sustainability problem that has been solved by an international policy? (If you have done PD with me, you should know this answer!) The Montreal Protocol! This is the only example where a global sustainability problem (the ozone hole in the atmosphere) was solved with a global solution. The Montreal Protocol, put into force in 1989, “was designed to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere, and thereby protect the earth’s fragile ozone layer.” The Protocol focuses on phasing out substances known as chlorofluorocarbons, which have been used for refrigeration, air conditioning, fire protecting, and electronics.

Just because there has only been one successful policy doesn’t mean that sustainability is not important at the international level. After successfully defeating the depletion of the ozone, the international community has shifted its focus to mitigation and adaptation to climate change. In 1992, the international community joined forces to launch the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This convention commits countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), based on the premise that global warming exists and human-made carbon dioxide emissions have caused it.

Five years later, under the UNFCCC, came the Kyoto Protocol. With 192 parties ratifying the Protocol, it places a heavier burden on developed nations through two commitment periods. In the first commitment period, from 2008-2012, 37 industrialized countries and the European Community committed to reduce GHG emissions to an average of five percent against 1990 levels. The second commitment period, from 2012-2020, also known as the Doha Amendment, commits countries to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990 levels. As of April 12, 2017, 77 countries have ratified the amendment, while entry into force requires 144 countries.

The Kyoto Protocol has been anything from perfect. Canada, which originally ratified the Protocol, withdrew in 2012, stating that because the US and China have not agreed to it, it will not succeed. To date, the US has never signed or ratified the Protocol, claiming that it is unfair to force developed nations to do something that developing nations are only asked to do voluntarily.

Because of its imperfections, the Kyoto Protocol has been basically replaced by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The goal of this agreement is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. While 2 degrees Celsius is the goal, it also encourages efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement is the opposite of strict, with no detailed timetable or country-specific goals for emissions, no mechanism to force a country to set a target by a specific date, and no enforcement measures if a set target is not met. Each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction or limitation, called a "nationally determined contribution," but the amount will be voluntary. The only penalty is a “name and shame” system.

To enter into force, the agreement needed at least 55 countries, which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions, to join. This threshold was achieved on October 5, 2016, and the Agreement went into effect on November 6, 2016. Initially, President Obama signed the agreement. The former president set a nationally determined contribution to “achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below its 2005 level by 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.” As you may know, President Trump is seriously considering pulling the US out of the agreement.

International agreements focus on global problems. The Millennium Development Goals focused on meeting the needs of the world’s poor by 2015; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development focuses on sustainable development in the European Union; and the Forest Stewardship Council sets standards for responsible forest management. In part two of this series, I will focus on what individual countries are doing to help alleviate some of these global problems.