An environmental protocol is a type of international law (treaty), "an intergovernmental document intended as legally binding with a primary stated purpose of preventing or managing human impacts on natural resources."
International environmental protocols came to feature in environmental governance after trans-boundary environmental problems became widely perceived in the 1960s. Following the Stockholm Intergovernmental Conference in 1972, creation of international environmental agreements proliferated.
The world's existing political systems pose barriers to the creation of environmental protocols. First, maintenance of sovereignty means that no country can be forced to participate, only urged to do so. Consequently, as French states, "International law has the force of moral suasion, but few real teeth." Second, North-South conflict can block cooperation: the countries in the global South generally see the countries of the North as needing to take responsibility for environmental degradation and make significant changes in their way of living, neither of which the North deems reasonable.
Finally, countries may lack motivation to change their environmental policies due to conflict with other interests, especially economic prosperity. If environmental protocols will cause economic difficulties or harm to a country, it may shirk the protocols while other countries adhere to them, creating a classic free-rider problem. Additionally, environmental protocols may be criticized for scientific uncertainty, or at least a lack of synthesis of scientific information, which may be used for "blocking interests and doing mischief."
Due to these barriers, environmental protocols become an obvious target for several criticisms, such as being slow to produce the desired effects (due to the convention-protocol-ratification-implementation process), tending to the lowest common denominator, and lacking monitoring and enforcement. They can also be criticized for taking an incremental approach where sustainable development principles suggest that environmental concern should be mainstreamed.
Protocols can take flexible approaches to improve effectiveness. One example is the use of sanctions: under the Montreal Protocol, signatories were forbidden to purchase chlorofluorocarbons from nonsignatories, in order to prevent any windfall benefits. Funding has also been used to overcome North-South conflict: members of the Montreal Protocol created a fund of $240 million to redistribute the costs of transition. Differential obligations as seen in the Kyoto Protocol can also encourage wider participation.
While protocols appear to be the ultimate top-down mode of governance, having "scant provisions for public participation," it is widely thought that the influence of transnational networks has been growing Public opinion is relevant, as concern must exist to prompt action and dedication of government resources. Non-governmental organizations also fulfill certain roles, from gathering information and devising policies to mobilising support. Science plays an important part, although Susskind asserts that sometimes this role is diminished by uncertainty, disagreement, and the rise of "adversary science." The business community can also be involved with positive outcomes.
How we view the effectiveness of protocols depends on what we expect from them. With little administrative force or actual power, protocols succeed in increasing government concern, enhancing the contractual environment, and heightening capacity through transfer of assets. Yet as long as sovereignty is intact, environmental protocols will not affect changes in the face of state or public apathy, guarantee national action, or materialize overnight. The progress of international environmental law might be, as Wiener suggests, like the tortoise, slow but steady.
- Kanie (2007) Governance with Multi-lateral Environmental Agreements: A healthy or ill-equipped fragmentation? in Global Environmental Governance: Perspectives on the Current Debate, edited by Walter Hoffmann and Lydia Swart: 67-86. New York: Center for UN Reform Education
- Haas, Keohane and Levy (1993) Institutions for the Earth: Sources of effective international environmental protection Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Zürn (1998) The Rise of International Environmental Politics: A Review of Current Research World Politics, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 617-649
- French (1994) Strengthening International Environmental Governance The Journal of Environment Development 3: 59
- Tolba (1998) Global Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating agreements for the world 1973-1992 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Susskind (1994) Environmental diplomacy: negotiating more effective global Oagreements Oxford University Press
- Wiener (1999) On the political economy of global environmental regulation Georgetown Law Journal, Volume 87, pp. 749 - 794