Dr Adeniyi P. Asiyanbi, an Anniversary Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Global Environmental Politics, expert in how power, knowledge, interest, conflict and subjectivity play out in human relations with and over the environment, talks about how limited the international environmental agreements are.

The first international action to reduce carbon emission, the predecessor of the Paris Agreement—Kyoto Protocol—has been signed for 22 years and has been effective for 14 years. Yet, total carbon emissions have been growing, and the trend of growth is estimated to continue in 2019. It’s hard to say the Kyoto Protocol has been a success.

Moreover, after the first commitment period between 2008 and 2012, only seven out of 37 countries with a binding reduction target have ratified the second commitment with legal force. The rest either stated that they may withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol or they just won’t take on new targets in the second commitment period. Now, can its successor—Paris Agreement—cut back greenhouse gases emission? Dr Asiyanbi has his doubts.

In the Kyoto Protocol, lots of countries failed to meet their target without getting punished or sanctioned. Do you think an environmental agreement without international sanction is too soft?

Carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion and Kyoto Protocol targets

Dr Asiyanbi: “None. Although I believe the international regime should be tougher. There should be more consequences for those countries that fail to meet the requirement. But the question is who gets to enforce that regimes to police the extent to different countries achieving their set targets. Who gets to impose sanctions?

“Are we going to rely on the existing international system, like the UN and the International court of justice? Or are we going to invent new institutions that are far more democratic and inclusive than the UN because the UN is controlled by the most powerful countries in the world?

“But I think the bigger problem is the countries who didn’t ratify the protocol instead of countries that failed to meet the target. Targets are made to either be achieved or to be broken. So it’s possible that in spite of all efforts meet targets, they ended up missing their targets at the time specified.”

The difference between the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement

Dr Asiyanbi: “Paris agreement is unlike the previous Kyoto protocol. The Paris agreement was meant to be absolutely voluntary. The Kyoto protocol set up the level of reduction that needs to be achieved by industrialised countries, which are categorised as Annex I countries. It’s more specific in a sense if they ratify it since the level of emission reduction is set by a targeted percentage for each country.

“If we are going to take action on climate change, it’s going to cost every country something, especially the industrialised countries. They still historically contributed most to causing climate change. Many of these countries have their responsibility to lower the emission to start with.

“But in the Paris agreement, there is no stipulation or set targets to what countries have to achieve in terms of the level of emission reduction. So, it’s not compelling or obligatory. What is mandatory in a sense, is just to report it. They can decide what they want to reduce and report to UN if they ratify Paris Agreement.”

If the Paris Agreement is totally voluntary without compulsory targets, why did Trump withdraw from it?

Dr Asiyanbi: “Trump is against climate action publicly, and his argument is always the same that climate change action would curb the economy of the US. It’s not in the interest of the Trump administration because we all know Trump is keen to develop resources products like oil, natural gas, to export those products. That is his main reason.

“Also, by pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, he sent out a clear signal to the entire fossil fuel industry that the US is not even ready to give any restriction on their activities, let alone being mandatory. It’s how Trump says to the oil industry it’s business as usual in a very aggressive way.”

Is it more about politics instead of environmental issues when it comes to countries negotiating for the international environmental treaty?

Dr Asiyanbi: “It’ not possible to talk about environmental issues without politics in the countries level. It’s hard to talk about politics without referencing the environment because it’s the basis for economic production.

“But if the politics specifically means the interaction between states, I would agree that on the international stage, all the activities to address climate change with different countries, is more about politics than environment because each country put their interest first and seek out their advantage, which is understandable. Especially, climate change is a universal problem faced by every country. The climate is a common pool, so if one country fails to reduce on the mission, then there’s no incentive for other countries to also reduce their own emissions.”

Do you think the international environmental agreements have been successful?

Dr Asiyanbi: “We have more institutions, more activities, more attention, more agreements. But in terms of how much emission we brought down, unfortunately, we achieve little. The emission level is still increasing, new peak, new record, except for the period of financial crisis when economic activities were brought down, the emissions went down with it.

“But we should also not totally dismiss efforts that we made around actually addressing climate by international agreements. Because some issues around climate change also intersect with local environmental problems like pollution, wildfire. Countries are taking actions to address emission issues not only about global climate change, but also about the local environmental issues.

“And I believe the combination of more coverage on increasing environmental issues, such as air pollution and wildfires, and the rise of public awareness and movement, could be a better force than international agreement. Because people can decide how they live, and who they vote for. So, the momentum to address climate change is going to be bottom-up if more people start to realise and concern about the environment.

“We have tried lots of top-down approaches over two decades, big people sitting and negotiating but that doesn’t work. Politicians’ environmental approaches would be more prioritised when more people are on the street and vote for politicians who have a say on environmental issues.”

Countries that ratified Kyoto Protocol in second commitment period

Because of the recent Amazon’s fire, it makes me curious – should problems in the Amazon be counted as domestic problems or international ones?

Dr Asiyanbi: “As simple as you have asked, it’s a question people have been writing theses about for years, whether Amazon should be seen as national heritage or world heritage. It’s also a question that Brazilian politicians continue negotiating in various ways.

“So from time to time, you have politicians in Brazil who play the card like ‘See how the Amazon rainforest is useful to the world. So support the Amazon give us money to conserve it first.’

“But unfortunately, Bolsonaro is playing the opposite card, saying that it’s a sovereignty issue and the Amazon belongs to Brazil. So we have the right to control what we want to do in the space. In that sense, there’s no straightforward answer to it.”

On one hand, Dr Asiyanbi believes the international system is built on values of sovereignty, which includes territorial sovereignty—any area within the marked jurisdiction is controlled exclusively by that country. So in that sense, the Amazon is a national space owned by Brazil.

On the other hand, the Amazon rainforest is so important to the  global ecological system that one begins to wonder whether international organisations and other countries should be playing a role in  managing or  protecting the Amazon. So it’s a tension that cannot be resolved easily, especially Brazil is still a powerful country.

“The best option now would be soft approaches, like stop and withdraw funding for the Brazilian Amazon. Norway and German have suspended money since deforestation increased. France brings up the idea of economic sanctions against Brazil, to push Bolsonaro to do the right thing.”