Ignoring International Environmental Treaties

Is the U.S. really such a bad neighbor?

Science Features Environment
Ignoring International Environmental Treaties

Who wants toxic waste dumped in their neighborhood? How about a chemical dump leaking toxic chemicals into the soil near your local playground and into your groundwater supply? Raise your hands, please.

We want the latest technology, cheap electricity, and the convenience of disposable cleaning supplies, but we don’t like the consequences that come from fulfilling such demands. The Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) defense is a powerful force behind dumping hazardous material from developed countries in poor countries. The cost to the environment, human health, and public opinion, however, can be high. How high became clear in the 1980s when the extent of toxic dumping in Africa and other poor countries became well known. The worldwide reaction was, predictably, outrage.

What followed was the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes. Its stated goal is “to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes.” The United States signed the agreement, but it hasn’t been ratified by the U.S. Senate. This means the U.S. isn’t legally bound to comply with the terms.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. is ignoring the principles of the agreement or any other environmental treaty awaiting ratification, according to Maria Ivanova, associate professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Of the 1,100 multilateral environmental agreements in place, only 12 of them are international in nature, and the U.S. has yet to ratify most of them, she says.

“(If) you look at what the United States is doing domestically, it has most of these laws in some variant,” says Ivanova. “For example, the United States has not signed onto the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, but it has incredibly well developed domestic legislation that pretty much puts all of these requirements in place. It just has not ratified because the government at that time said, ‘We will not accept the provisions of a supra-national body telling us which chemicals to regulate.’ The U.S. often uses that exact rationale to say it won’t ratify a convention.”

An additional reason is that these treaties are perceived as burdensome, another layer of unnecessary regulations. Ivanova calls this a misconception that disregards an important point.

“They level the playing field by allowing all countries to pursue the same goals,” she says. “They’re actually ensuring other countries will have the kinds of regulation and legislation that the United States has.”

Young boys’ hands sift through broken CRT glass on the road from Alaba International Market, one of the largest markets for electronic goods in West Africa. The road, which passes the waste dump at the market, is covered with this glass. Old and broken electronic goods such as TVs and computers come in to the market via Lagos harbor from the U.S., Western Europe and China.
Photo courtesy of ©Greenpeace / Kristian Buus


The Making of a Treaty

An international governing body, such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), identifies an emerging environmental concern and brings together scientists to explore and clarify the problems. If the threat is real, the scientists make recommendations designed to help governments create regulations and legislation to respond at the national and international level. A treaty—which can be called a convention, protocol or called a host of other names—is “an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law,” per the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. These environmental agreements usually have a core provision or obligation for the creation of national legislation, regulation, and a plan of implementation. All countries are invited to sign, but the terms can’t be legally enforced. Even though there’s no mechanism for reward or punishment, most countries signing do participate, according to Ivanova.

“International agreements and treaties … protect not only the environment, which is their ultimate purpose, but they are in the best interest of each and every country in the world,” she says. “All of us want to live in an environment that is healthy and all of us want to live in a society that is competitive and progressive and values the core human values.”

Even though many scholars will argue that enforcement is essential for long-term success, the recent Paris Agreement on climate change proves encouragement can be more powerful than punishment. The intentional exclusion of punitive measures kept the focus on the goal “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change” and proved to be enough incentive for the majority (131 of 197) countries to sign, and more are in the midst of the approval process. Supporters were able to demonstrate that everyone will get closer to their goals of an energy efficient economy or a carbon neutral economy.

“This positive spin turned out to be a much more compelling narrative and a much more compelling reason for all of these various entities to commit,” says Ivanova. “That’s when businesses—hundreds of them—came forth and said, ‘We want to be a part of this.’ Cities, counties, and then countries followed and said, ‘We want to be part of this.’ ”

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People sift through the rubbish at the Olusosum dump site. The site is government run by the agency Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and is one of six sites taking in general waste from all over Lagos. E-waste is not allowed on site, but some does appear from the general waste collected. Local people are making a living out of selling their collections for recycling. Some of the people live on site, too poor to pay for accommodation elsewhere.
Photo courtesy of ©Greenpeace/Kristian Buus


The Implications of Reneging

The Paris Agreement was a primary focus for the current U.S. President during the election and threats to back out could have serious consequences. This isn’t the first time the United States has taken this position. The climate agreement called the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (the precursor to Paris), didn’t require developing countries to take any action. The U.S. initially agreed to the protocol, but then “unsigned” protesting that a global problem required all countries to act, including China and others pumping pollution into the atmosphere. This position resulted in a change to the agreement, and the U.S. once again signed.

Ivanova predicts other countries could use this same argument against the U.S., if it pulls out of the agreement.

“Now developing countries like China can say, ‘If the United States is not doing anything, why should we be doing it?’

“If the United States decides not to pull out of Paris, but (doesn’t) fulfill its obligations, it will open up a space for technology development, for energy development. If the United States does not invest in that space, it will have to be filled. China is poised to fill it. (The country) has a carbon market. It’s investing in solar, wind. It will step into that space where the United States is (currently) very technologically competitive. The United States will do the biggest service to the Chinese economy in making it more efficient in various ways and much more competitive.”

The United Kingdom recently opened formal talks with the U. S. government about staying in the Paris Agreement, and over 600 businesses have written urging the current administration not to leave the agreement. The common theme is that it’s in the best interest of the U.S. to build an economy that’s resilient and carbon-free.

Image: Jeremiah John McBride, CC-BY

Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.

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