Lets think constructively about the environment and lets try to think 10 years ahead in global environmental debates. There are many global environmental problems, and these are likely to get worse. The best known one is of course global warming likely due to greenhouse gas emissions, but there are other, I would say more important, problems. The UN Millenium report from 2005 lists them nicely (the Millenium Goals are conspicuous by how much we clapped for them when agreeing to them and how stealthfully the world has ignored them since). There is soil erosion, natural habitat destruction, and the plundering of shared environmental resources, in particular the oceans. If you believe even a trace of the Footprint literature, then our eco(n)systems cannot support the current weight of people at current levels of consumption.
Its increasingly clear that for the next 10 years at least, were going to do nothing of significance. Even a child can calculate that the Kyoto agreement is not going to do anything significant about greenhouse emissions. Weve known this for quite a while now. Supporters, such as Nicholas Stern, frankly admit its basically a symbolic agreement whose feeble targets are unlikely to be adhered to by those that signed up to it. The dummy that is Kyoto may feel like a good suck to small infants, but anyone serious about climate change knows its meaningless because it cant enforce anything. Another fundamental flaw is that it fails to recognise that some countries stand to benefit from global warming and will hence never really voluntarily cooperate, such as Russia (which has signed up but doesnt exactly seem like taking much notice), whilst others will refuse to pay for averting it whilst theyre not as rich as other countries (China, India).
Like anything else in life, if you want to get people with different interests to abide by a common set of restraints, youre going to have to create communal measurement and enforcement mechanisms. This is why each community has a local police station in stead of merely a joint statement by its citizens promising theyll be nice to each other. The same goes for global problems and goes as much for emissions as it does for ocean fishing or cross-border water management. In the long run, we need a common environmental measurement body and a common environmental police. We already have several international enforcement agencies, such as NATO and Interpol, and perhaps these could be linked to the environmental agencies of the UN.
The big question will be how to get started with creating common enforcement mechanisms to back up common measurement agencies. The tough bit is that it effectively means handing over sovereignty which is not something nation states do in a hurry and even in 10 years time I cant see the important countries agreeing to use NATO as the worlds environment police. Is there then some way we can start to build enforcement without an army, preferably in some way as to create a rich and powerful international body that will be able to afford its own army as time goes by?
The problem of enforcement without being militarily strong has been seen many times in history. Perhaps the most valid analogy I can think of was the situation of bankers who lend money to overseas monarchs when there was no international enforcement of any kind and monarchs didnt care much about their reputation. What did the Rothchilds and other rich banking families ask for in medieval Europe when sovereigns wanted to borrow money but the Rothchilds had no army and the sovereigns did? They asked for collateral. They asked for pieces of land, castles in other countries, or monopoly rights over the trade in certain goods. Quite often they never got the money back they lend the warlording monarchs, but they did get to keep the collateral. At least sometimes.
Handing over international collateral when engaging in global environmental treaties is something that is not as emotive as handing over sovereignty and furthermore can be spread out over time. Collateral gives countries an incentive to actually meet the targets they promise to meet. What kind of collateral can we envisage? One obvious thought is the IMF drawing rights. All rich countries have a couple billion stored at the IMF in terms of drawing rights. A country serious about meeting its environmental obligations could agree to hand over its IMF reserves, which it will only get back if it meets its obligations after a certain number of years. This is something that could already be done now. Australia could, if it wanted to, hand over ownership of its IMF drawing rights within the context of being able to get it back if it meets the Kyoto targets in 2010. Then, Kyoto would start to have bite and would start to make sense to support.
What other collateral could we think of? We could think of countries handing over, say, 1% of GDP for a period of, say, 20 years, to an international environmental agency. That accumulates to a serious amount of money which would then be invested in the global markets. One could return this collateral to the country if, say, countries have indeed adhered to their fishing quotas and their water quotas within a 50 year time span. This collateral would then effectively be like a large futures fund. One can build in additional compliance incentives by having rules about what to do with the collateral in case a country does not meet its obligations. Should a country not meet its obligations, then one can for instance divide the funds over those countries that do meet their obligations. This would give an incentive for other countries to join in, especially poor and developing countries. Alternatively, one could use forfeited funds to buy pieces of precious environment, such as the Amazon rainforest. Slowly, the environmental agency would then become a rich land holder capable of supporting an international army.
In the olden days, kings would send their sons to live in the courts of the enemy as a form of collateral. That would be a little extreme within today’s moral code but it brings a smile to my heart to imagine Rudd sending his wife and family to live in Washington as collateral to a promise to meet the Kyoto targets.
Even more radical, but cheaper to the countries involved in the short-term, would be to ask for pieces of territory as collateral. This is not uncommon historically. For arguments sake, the US could offer Alaska as collateral. Australia could offer Tasmania or the Barrier Reef, though I suppose some would argue we would miss the Reef if we couldnt keep to our targets.
What other ways can you think of to get enforcement mechanisms into otherwise toothless and hence meaningless international environmental treaties? I predict to you that that question is what the debate will be about in 10 years time when populations and their scientists have become aware that nothing about the global environment on the table at present is going to have noticeable impacts and things like Kyoto are symbolic soothers.