In 2015, the world’s leaders gathered in Paris to sign a landmark climate change agreement — or so we thought. It turns out dramatic international action is extraordinarily hard to accomplish. The Paris Agreement was hobbled to begin with, as the U.S. demanded the agreement be optional, not mandatory. Even if all countries hit their emissions targets, we would be on pace for four degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels — in other words, apocalypse. And that was before nations started missing their targets and the U.S. pulled out entirely.
The Green Climate Fund, which is meant to help developing countries implement the Paris Climate Agreement goals, has been grossly underfunded. Its fundraising target of $100 billion per year turned out to be a fairytale. As of 2019, they have invested only $2 billion in sustainable development projects.
Understanding the failure of the Green Climate Fund is integral to understanding the Paris Agreement’s broader failure. Climate change is a global issue. There is no isolation from the wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts — although I’m sure some poor countries who have barely emitted anything, but bear the brunt of the damage, wishes it were. Thus, helping developing and industrializing nations like China and India, who are making up an increasingly large percentage of global emissions, to develop in a low-carbon, sustainable fashion is essential to lowering emissions. In the next few decades, as developed western nations’ emissions begin to level off, developing nations will begin to emit more and more, as they go through the stages of industrialization. This pattern is also rooted in a historical inequality — many of the now developing nations were not allowed to develop on course with developed nations due to colonialism, neo-colonialism and international economic strangulation.
Additionally, the world is far too interconnected for emissions to be reduced in isolation. Think about the clothes you are wearing right now, the food you’ve eaten today and all of the things you own. If those items weren’t made in the United States, they might not count towards our emissions. But they sure as heck count in the countries they were manufactured in, and they sure as heck count in the atmosphere when they are transported to your doorstep through a network of polluting cars, trains, trucks and planes. This global nature of emissions isn’t just exploitative, as developed countries get to essentially export their emissions to poor, developing countries; it mandates global cooperation to solve the crisis of climate change.
So this all begs the question: What is the future of international climate agreements? Can private NGOs provide the solutions? To some degree, they already are. The expertise, knowledge and funding that these NGOs can bring to developing countries, to ensure that they develop sustainably, is crucial. But the reliance on foreign NGOs raises broader questions about neo-colonialism and disproportionate outsider influence. Developing nations which are wary (with good reason) of the IMF and World Bank might not take kindly to an NGO based strategy. Can businesses pave the way forward? Unlikely, considering many of them have a vested interest in maintaining the current “exported emissions” system. What about individual governments? For instance, could the U.S. take the lead on this issue and provide funding for sustainable development? Again, we run into problems with neo-colonialism and undue outsider influence on domestic affairs. Also, it is unlikely that any government with these funds would want to participate by themselves, as they could create space for free rider countries who want to talk the talk but refuse to walk the walk.
I do not have the answers. International cooperation, particularly on issues as amorphous and broad as climate change, will always be hard. But as I have described, it is the only way forward. Countries, businesses and NGOs must find a way to incentivize international cooperation — or else we may never solve the most pressing issue of our time.
Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.