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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Escaping the Curse

In the realm of environmental management, it has long been considered the job of national governments to enact regulations and promote policies to safeguard their citizens. Across most of the industrialized world, destructive behaviors once considered common practice—such as polluting rivers with industrial waste—are now strictly regulated, often as a result of public pressure. One might argue that the response to climate change should work the same way: that is, once countries are aware of the serious negative impacts associated with fossil fuel combustion—and are pressured by growing public demand for reform—they should enact regulations to reduce emissions and ensure a habitable planet.

This supposition, which assumes both the responsibility and responsiveness of individual countries, currently shapes the international community's approach to climate change. As the science on climate change improves, governments should act on this new information to protect their citizens. This approach is codified in the UNFCCC, which states that countries “should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” The annual UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COPs) provide a forum for countries to engage in national climate diplomacy and are designed to ultimately produce an international agreement to address global climate change when the parties gather for the twenty-first time in Paris in 2015.

This belief in the ability of countries to facilitate change is not unfounded. Under the UNFCCC process, several countries—such as Denmark— have emerged as climate leaders. Many others have taken action unilaterally or in collaboration with other countries. At the regional level, the European Union made significant progress by introducing the EU Emissions Trading System, notwithstanding the system's current struggles. Yet despite these successes, a global pact remains elusive and existing national pledges to reduce emissions remain markedly insufficient. In the long build-up to COP 21, it appears that most countries have not acted in the way many had hoped, or with the urgency required to avoid significant climate change.

Despite the predominance of national governments in the international climate governance regime, recent analyses point to the significant role of nongovernmental entities—particularly in the fossil fuel and cement industries—in emitting greenhouse gases. Of the top 90 major carbon producers, 50 are privately owned corporations, 31 are state-owned corporations, and only 9 are countries. Overall, investor-owned corporations have been responsible for 21.7 percent of carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1750, with state-owned corporations responsible for an additional 19.8 percent. Although national regulations can play a role in overseeing corporate behavior within domestic borders, they fall short in influencing the overall operations of multinational corporations. Finding ways to engage directly with energy industry emitters represents an opportunity to transcend national borders and influence climate action on a broader scale.

Private industry needs to play a significant role in achieving necessary emissions reductions. Some have suggested that this is not just an opportunity to broaden the discussion, but that these organizations have “an ethical obligation to help address climate destabilization.” If the current international approach to addressing climate change is expanded to include actors beyond national governments, corporate energy interests could become partners in the search for a solution, rather than observers or vilified symbols of obstruction.

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