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Parliaments and Pacts

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JOHANNESBURG – The United Nations’ recent 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa succeeded in renewing the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions. But the meeting also highlighted the two major problems that plague international environmental negotiations. The first, unscientific skepticism, has an impact on the second, collective-action failure. Ultimately, only legislative bodies have the power to overcome this failure.

Skepticism regarding the need for environmental action arises from the relationship between environmental degradation and per capita income. According to the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), degradation and pollution increase enormously at the early stages of economic growth. But, above a certain per capita income threshold, that trend reverses itself: at high income levels, economic growth correlates with environmental improvement, leading to the dubious conclusion that it might be possible to achieve sustainable growth without deviating from “business as usual” (maintaining current emissions levels).

This theory informs some countries’ reluctance to commit to the Kyoto Protocol’s second term. But it is clearly wrong. The United States continues to have the world’s highest per capita emissions levels, at 19 tons of CO2 per person annually, even though average US annual income, at $42,385 per capita, is also among the highest in the world. Clearly, wealth in itself is no guarantee of reduced CO2 emissions.

Likewise, China’s annual per capita income is $5,450, but it emits only 4.7 tons of CO2 per person (though, overall, it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases). South Africans earn an average income of $8,857 per capita, but they emit a disproportionate 9.4 tons of CO2 per person.

Moreover, the EKC perpetuates an erroneous assumption – that environmental damage will not curtail economic growth. In fact, research by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change strongly suggests that a business-as-usual approach would lead to an era of irreversible environmental destruction that would preclude economic growth. We cannot afford such a strategy, especially as the poor would bear the brunt of the resulting climate change.

The educated consensus is that the global climate’s current trajectory must be reversed much more rapidly than business as usual would allow. Here, however, a second set of problems  – divergent interests and the complexity of international negotiations – presents itself.

When countries believe that high emissions levels are necessary to economic growth, they naturally become reluctant to agree to any binding protocol that would curtail emissions and thus stifle growth. This leads to a situation in which one participant can prevent the resolution of the larger group’s dilemma.

In 1988, Harvard University’s Robert Putnam wrote a ground-breaking paper called “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” According to Putnam,  international diplomacy and domestic politics represent a liberal democracy’s two negotiating levels. A “win-set” occurs when a country’s domestic and international interests harmoniously overlap. This overlap thus represents the room for compromise that countries’ international negotiators have.

If a country’s domestic politics are weak – no executive accountability, no genuine legislative oversight, and a poor relationship between citizen and state – its negotiator has a large win-set. For example, South Africa’s international negotiators – executive ministers and senior civil servants – can compromise on just about anything, because they are not truly accountable to their population through the parliament.

Logically, one would expect this to strengthen South Africa’s diplomatic negotiating position. In fact, the diplomat who arrives at the international negotiating table with a smaller win-set – with less room for compromise – almost always secures a better deal for her country. Generally, a strong legislature results in a smaller win-set.

But current COP negotiations make a mockery of most legislatures. Government ministers use international meetings to mouth platitudes, while ordinary citizens’ voices are muted. There is, quite simply, an excessive focus on executive power at many negotiating forums.

Of course, a strong domestic legislature by itself is not enough to address the global collective-action problem: legislatures in countries like the US are overexposed to special interests that want to continue polluting. But if Americans were serious about securing a Kyoto commitment from their government, they would almost certainly get it. South Africans would not, because their parliament is hamstrung by the conflation of the state with the country’s governing political party, the African National Congress.

Strong legislatures, while not a sufficient condition for securing binding global agreements, are certainly necessary for that purpose. A country’s legislature is the single most important institution for protecting its citizenry from the excesses of the elite and the costly demands of narrow interests.

The irony of most internationally binding agreements is that they are not actually binding. There is no supra-national body that will enforce the Kyoto Protocol; hence Canada’s disappointing decision to leave the process. And who would police emissions from China and America, even if they did commit to an international agreement?

In the absence of a global Leviathan, stronger domestic legislatures are the key to resolving the world’s collective environmental problems. The less accountable a government is to its people, the less it will do for the world.

Lindiwe Mazibuko is Parliamentary Leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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