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All about agreements


Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

-- (Credit: ILLUSTRATIONS: AKHILESH) 'think global and act local' may sound cliched, but it most aptly describes the efforts that are required to stop, reverse and prevent environment degradation. No longer can the environment be thought of, or tackled at purely the local level, even the country level. Emissions and omissions of a country can, and do effect others, best exemplified by the 1997 forest fires in Indonesia, which resulted in a blanket of smoke hanging over neighbouring countries.

Numerous such examples abound in contemporary history. Rapid industrialisation by the northern countries has led to the formation of a hole in the ozone layer and the phenomenon of global warming. Subsequently, Australia has to cope with the an increase in skin cancers, while coastal areas and small islands are threatened with submergence.

Many environmental problems thus cross international political boundaries and their solution requires co-operation between countries on an unprecedented scale. In most cases, the approach to tackle problems of transboundary environment issues has been through international agreements. Through the United Nations Environment Programme, more than 170 multilateral agreements pertaining to the environment have been signed.

The success of any agreement depends on how it is formulated and what it contains. The most difficult part is its implementation the translation of intent into action, without which the agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. The Achilles heel of most of these agreements is the steps that need to be taken if member signatory countries fail to take necessary action.

Compliance, by signatory states, sadly, does not automatically imply that there will be a discernible positive change in the environment and thus the effectiveness of an agreement also needs assessing.

This book aims to do just that. Based on 14 case studies, it is the culmination of a three-year research project titled 'Implementation and effectiveness of international environmental commitments' conducted by the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenberg, Austria. These case studies look at the implementation of eight major areas of international environment regulation. The book is divided into two parts. The first parts looks at systems of implementation institutions that allow the contracting parties to share information, compare activities, review performance, handle non-compliance and adjust commitments at the international level, and the other describes the implementation at the national level.

The implementation of international environmental agreements centres around national actions like the creation of new programmes and the enforcement of laws and standards. Thus actual implementation experiences will naturally differ between nations, based as implementation is, on political dynamics, various interest groups, institutional arrangements and national priorities. National level implementation is tricky, which, given the number of actors that are involved, comes as no surprise. The government agencies, the industry, non-governmental organisations ( ngo s ) , the people, all play a role. The tricky part is that national level implementation requires a change in habits and practices not always easy to change.

The author attempts to examine and analyse a wide range of international environmental and implementation regimes and come to the conclusion that there really is no standard model that can be adopted for implementation. The effectiveness of implementation cannot be predicted and the fate of these agreements can often be uncertain, more so when the national level implementation requires striking changes. Often, even otherwise highly performing governments find themselves unable to meet international requirements.

The book is comprehensive and exhaustive, perhaps repetitive at times. One major drawback is all the case studies are from the north and Russia. There are no examples from Asia or Africa. While the book does get into the intrigue and the various behind-the-scene actors, strong-arm tactics by countries that can flex their muscles is not given due attention.

The book should will easily and justifiable find itself on the shelves of students of international relations and diplomacy.

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