The State of the Environment—An Overview - The International Response To Environmental Problems
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Environmental issues have never been neatly bound by national borders. Activities taking place in one country often have an impact on the environment of other countries, if not that of the entire Earth. In fact, many of the most important aspects of environmental protection involve areas that are not located within any particular country, such as the oceans, or belong to no one, such as the atmosphere. In an attempt to deal with these issues, the international community has held a number of conferences and concluded numerous treaties.
A First Step—The Stockholm Conference
In 1972 the United Nations (UN) met in Stockholm, Sweden, for a conference on the environment. Delegates from 113 countries met, with each reporting the state of his or her nation's environment—forests, water, farmland, and other natural resources. The countries represented essentially fell into two groups. The industrialized countries were primarily concerned about how to protect the environment by preventing pollution and overpopulation and conserving natural resources. The less developed nations were more concerned about problems of widespread hunger, disease, and poverty they all faced. They did consider the environment very important, however, and were willing to protect it as long as doing so did not have a major negative economic impact on their citizens.
By the end of the two-week meeting, the delegates had agreed that the human environment had to be protected, even as industrialization proceeded in the less developed countries. They established the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which included Earthwatch, a program to monitor changes in the physical and biological resources of the Earth. The most important outcome of the conference was awareness of Earth's ecology as a whole. For the first time in global history, the environmental problems of both rich and poor nations were put in perspective. General agreement emerged to protect natural resources, encourage family planning and population control, and protect against the negative effects of industrialization.
Some Difficulties Facing International Environmental Protection
Since the 1972 conference, hundreds of environmental treaties have been signed. From this, one might assume that great progress has been made, but this is not truly the case. Most experts believe that international cooperation is not keeping pace with the world's ever-growing interdependence and the rapidly deteriorating condition of much of the environment. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are at record highs, water shortages exist around the world, fisheries are becoming depleted, and many scientists are warning that large numbers of species are becoming extinct. The reason for this is that, while nations agree on the fact that the environment must be safeguarded, they disagree sharply on the issue of what role each nation should play in protecting it.
Less developed nations are generally unwilling to alter their laws and economy to end environmentally destructive ways because a shift to environmentally friendly practices would be too expensive, they claim, for their economies to handle. Yet, the richer, industrialized, nations generally refuse to alter their own behavior unless the less developed nations do so as well. Their reason is not so much the cost of change rather than believing it unfair that the less developed nations want them to carry most of the burden of environmental protection.
The less developed nations respond by pointing out that the industrialized nations became rich by using the very same practices they now want the less developed nations to stop using. They claim it is unfair to be expected to limit their economic development in ways that the industrialized nations themselves never would have done.
This is a difficult disagreement but not an impossible one to resolve. When both sides are willing to compromise, agreements can be reached. These compromises usually require the industrialized nations to make bigger changes in their behavior, and to help the less developed nations change without too negative an impact on their economies.
Even agreements like these face many obstacles. Environmental agreements seldom include a means of enforcement but rely instead on each signing country to keep its word. Faced with the actual, immediate costs of implementing environmental agreements, many countries eventually back down from their commitments.
1992 EARTH SUMMIT.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is an example of a conference where compromises were made and agreements reached but little change actually resulted. Mounting global concern for the environment prompted the UN to convene the summit meeting. Approximately 180 governments participated, making it one of the largest and most important environmental summits ever. As with prior environmental summits, the conference was split between industrialized and developing nations.
The main accomplishments of the Earth Summit were pacts on global warming and biodiversity. President George H. W. Bush signed the global warming treaty for the United States. President Clinton signed the biodiversity treaty in 1994. These agreements came about largely because the industrialized nations also agreed to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national products by 2000 to assist developing countries with compliance.
Problems arose soon after the summit ended. Participating countries submitted annual reports to the 53-nation UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), a standing body set up to implement the Rio agreements. The CSD concluded in 1994 that most countries were failing to provide the money and expertise necessary to implement the plans set at Rio. Chairman of the CSD, Klaus Toepfer of Germany, reported that the world's efforts to finance the goals had fallen "significantly short of expectations and requirements."
By 1996 a number of national governments, including the United States, had prepared plans for environmental protection and submitted them to the CSD. Hundreds of municipalities had also written plans of action. The CSD once again found, however, that other issues had crowded out environmental concerns. As developed and less developed nations alike worried about the potential effects of implementing the Rio agreements, they found reasons to delay implementation and reduce funding for those programs that had been implemented.
WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international organization whose purpose is to encourage free trade between its members. Most of the world's nations are members. Although the WTO was officially founded in 1995, it is the result of decades of international cooperation under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO continues to administer the free trade system established under GATT.
One of the primary missions of the WTO is to eliminate barriers to free trade. Doing so can have a negative effect on environmental protection, however, because laws designed to protect the environment often have the effect of restricting trade. If the WTO finds that a member nation is restricting trade in violation of GATT, other members are permitted to raise their tariffs (import taxes) on goods from that nation until the barriers to trade are eliminated. Most of the time nations quickly change their laws to eliminate barriers to trade, rather than suffer high taxes.
Since it has forced many environmental laws to be weakened over the years, the WTO is greatly disliked by many environmentalists in the United States. Also, there are groups that think the organization's power over internal U.S. affairs is too great. When the WTO met in Seattle, Washington, in 1999, tens of thousands of activists, including environmental activists, protested in the city. This massive protest succeeded in overshadowing the WTO meeting itself and drew public attention to the problems, environmental and otherwise, with free trade organizations. This was due in no small part to the violent rioting and property damage caused by some protesters.
Americans are not the only ones who take issue with some of the WTO's actions regarding the environment. For example, Europeans opposed to genetically modifying food, a procedure in widespread use in the United States by 2002, wanted restrictions placed on the sale of U.S. food in Europe, but such restrictions would violate GATT and invite retaliation by the United States.
NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994, is another major free trade agreement with the potential to negatively impact environmental protection in the United States. Members of NAFTA include the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and the purpose of the agreement is to eliminate trade barriers—such as most tariffs, investment restrictions, and import quotas—between these three countries. While its scope is much smaller than the WTO, NAFTA has an even greater impact on the three member countries than GATT.
A significant difference between NAFTA and GATT is that NAFTA is the first treaty of its kind ever to be accompanied by an environmental protection agreement. To discourage countries from weakening environmental standards in the name of increasing foreign trade, the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). Under NAAEC, a member country can be challenged if it or one of its states fails to enforce its environmental laws. A challenge can be brought by one of the member nations, or any interested party (such as an environmental protection group) can petition the NAAEC commission. If the commission finds a member country is showing a "persistent pattern of failure … to enforce its environmental law," that country may be fined. If the fines are not paid, the other members are permitted to suspend NAFTA benefits in an amount not exceeding the amount of the assessed fine.
Even with NAAEC, some U.S. environmentalists and state officials feared that NAFTA could result in the weakening of numerous humane laws and the reversal of 30 years of advances in animal protection and environmental cleanup. In response, Congress provided more protection for state laws and included more environmental language than in any previous trade agreement. The implementing legislation for NAFTA in the United States allows states much input and requires that they receive notification of actions that may affect them. In addition, during NAFTA discussions, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank were created. Independent of NAFTA itself, these agencies are intended to ensure that policy discussions are open and fairly enforced, to consider allegations that a country is not enforcing environmental laws, to help communities finance environmental infrastructures, and to resolve disputes, particularly those that cross borders.
Despite all these measures designed to make sure that NAFTA does not trample on environmental protection, environmentalists still see the need for concern. They point out that U.S. laws designed to protect certain animals could be challenged as barriers to free trade under NAFTA. They also point to the increased pollution in Mexico and along its border with the United States that has resulted from the increase in trade between these two countries.