Resources Archive

  • Research seminars

The International Climate Regime with Prof. Steinar Andresen

Title: The international climate regime: will it solve the problem?

Date: March 15th, from 6-7:30pm 


Diplomats have negotiated intensely for 30 years to deal with this problem, but emissions

have continued to rise. Will the Paris Agreement contribute to increase effectiveness?

What has been the role and influence of key actors in the process, states and non-state

actors alike and what is the prospect for the future? This topic and approach is key for

students to understand the possibilities and limitations of what can be achieved through

global environmental governance.


18:00-18:05: Introduction

18:05-18:50: Presentation

18:50-19:00: Break

19:00-19:30: Q&A

Speaker: Prof. Steinar Andresen (Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway)

Format: Zoom workshop (link will be sent to all registered participants the day before the


Contact information: 

The International climate regime: Will it solve the problem?
Steinar Andresen, The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway

Lecture, Global Faculty Development Workshop, University of Tokyo, April 7, 2021

Below follows a more detailed account covering the most important points for the cancelled lecture.

  1. Brief history of international environmental policies.

     Compared to issues like trade and security, environment is a relatively new phenomena, dating back to the late 19th century. It was first associated with protecting nature and wildlife in Western Europe and the US and was typically an ‘elite phenomenon’. Environment gained momentum with the establishment of the UN, but it was considered more of a technical issue by organizations like the IMO and FAO. This changed gradually in the 1960s and 1970s where environment was seen more in the context of severe pollution caused by rapid industrialization in the North. Importantly, WWF was established in 1961, first focusing on wildlife but subsequently broadening the scope. Greenpeace was established in 1979.
The first ‘milestone’ event was the UN 1972 Conference in Stockholm, very important both in terms of getting the issue higher on the international agenda as well as spurring a number of new international institutions like UNEP and a number of the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). Important new concepts were also adopted. Two weaknesses were still demonstrated, this was primary a state based event, very few ENOs present and it was dominated by states from the North. The South was more preoccupied with development and economic growth.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s a high number of MEAs was established. Various ‘generations’ of MEAs can be identified; 1 generation, simply acknowledging the problem without any commitments, 2 generation, adding specific goals and time limits, 3 generation, introducing differentiation due to different circumstances and cost effectiveness.
The 1992 Rio Summit was ‘the highlight of environmental enthusiasm’. Sustainable development’ was the new buzzword (borrowed from the 1987 Brudtland Commission’). The concept is vague, but it brought the South on board as the concept was seen to unite environment with development. The very ambitious Agenda 21 was adopted but it was never implemented properly. The CSD was established but it never got much practical significance. ENGO presence and influence was high compared to the Stockholm Conference and the South participated fully. One reason for the optimism was that the cold was over and  improved international cooperation was envisioned.
Global ‘mega summits’ continued in 2002 (Jo-burg) and Rio 2012. In my view with diminishing importance over time. In 2002 political stalemate was prominent and the general optimism was gone in the light of the 2001 9/11 disaster and continued conflicts across various issue areas internationally. However, the main reason behind their reduced significance was that their main function was agenda setting, no longer very relevant as a very high number of MEAs existed and implementation was the key, not agenda setting.  Reform of the whole UN environmental approach was called in the 2012 conference for but it never materialized. Maybe the diminishing significance is why I have seen no calls for a 2022 Conference? However, not all analysts agree with my analysis of these events, some are much more positive.
Following my reasoning from above, I am also sceptic to other UN ambitious approaches as reflected in the MDGs and the SDGs. Lots of effort are invested in making numerous goals and targets, but I believe their practical significance on the ground can be questioned as other driving forces are more important.
Attention to the environment among public varies strongly and tends to be most strong if economic conditions are good and there are no other pressing issues on the agenda. For example climate change was recently very high on the agenda, reflected in the strong attention to Thunberg, but it more or less vanished when Covid 19 took all attention and energy of governments around the world – but it will probably bounce back later on if and when conditions improve.        

2. Effectiveness: How to measure and explain

Unless you do not know the effect of MEAs as well as global mega conferences, it makes little sense to establish them. This was what caused students of international relations to start to study this some 30 years ago. Over time a consensus has emerged that effectiveness can be measured along three dimensions; output, outcome and impact.
Output simply deals with the rules and regulations emanating from the relevant MEA. The more specific and strict these regulations, the more effective the relevant MEA can be expected to be. For example, if there are high ambitions with strong compliance mechanism this points toward an effective MEA compared to low ambitions and no compliance mechanism. Legal scholars focus mostly on this dimension. However, reality shows that rules are not always followed, cheating and lacking ability may be two important reasons. Output is therefore more about potential effectiveness rather than true effectiveness. That is why the outcome indicator is introduced, focusing on the causal link between the MEAs and behavior on the ground by target groups. To be truly effective we have to demonstrate that for example oil companies are changing their behavior in a positive direction due to the existence of the international climate regime. Careful process-tracing is needed to establish causality. Impact is the link between the regime and the problem it is set out to deal with; to what extent has the problem been reduced? This is really what we want to know, but it is difficult to use due to the existence of a host of other factors affecting the relevant problem. This will be illustrated later.
Degree of effectiveness may be explained in various ways. One avenue is to differentiate between the nature of the problem and the problem-solving ability of the relevant regime. The former deals with basic characteristics of the relevant problem; some are more ‘malign’ than others due to strong political conflicts as well as scientific uncertainty. The more ‘malign’ the problem, the lower effectiveness can be expected – and vice versa (to be illustrated below). Problem-solving ability is sees as a function of power, leadership and institutional characteristics of the MEA. If powerful players are leaders and institutions are well-functioning effectiveness will increase – and again vice versa (illustrated below).
In general, research as well as overview from UNEP shows that most MEAs have some positive effects but very few are very effective and problems are rarely if ever – completely solved.

3. The UNFCCC: how effective and why (general overview)?

The UNFCCC adopted in 1992 is a typical general framework convention which main mission is to improve knowledge of the problem to get better understanding of what it takes to deal with it. Ambition was rather high, stabilization of emissions for the North, but this was a soft political target and it proved to have a very modest effect. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was much more ambitious in the sense that ambition was higher and more specific and adopted through a top down procedure, but these applied only to the North (Annex 1 states). The main weakness of the KP was its limited scope as it did not apply to the emerging economies in the South (like China) and this was where emission growth was strongest. The practical effect of the KP was therefore modest. The Paris Agreement (more later) was – in contrast a universal agreement but with voluntary commitments.
In a problem-solving perspective the effectiveness is very low in the sense that emissions – instead of being reduced – have increased strongly. The main reason is its exceedingly malign nature as virtually all economic activity affects emissions. Problem solving ability is also low as the most influential state, the US has been more of a laggard than a leader. As to the influence of non-state actors, the influence of the green community has been overall modest. The same goes for the scientist. Both groups have advocated strong emission cuts, but has not been listened to. Regarding relevant business groups, they have been much more influential. Traditionally they have been laggards, but more recently the picture has become more nuanced (more later).

4. The significance of the Paris Agreement and the role of key actors

On a positive note, the PA is very ambitious as it calls for a temperature increase of less than 2 C degrees and even aiming for only a 1.5 C increase – by the end of the century. It is also positive than in practice all states are members of the PA, in contrast to the more exclusive KP. The idea to increase ambitions for all parties over time through five-year cycles is also positive. However, the down- side is the bottom-up nature of the PA as national targets and how to achieve them are all voluntary and based on the INDC SEE temperature increase will be much higher than the official goal. Compliance mechanism are also weak and based primarily on politically soft ‘shaming and blaming’ measures. However, there are some global oversight mechanism like the Global Stocktake. In short, there are some positive and some negative features and it is too early to decide its effectiveness.
Focus next briefly on the three most important actors in the game, China, the US and the EU. They have been most important in the making of the climate regime from 1992 to the present and together they account for almost 50% of global emissions.
China: From poor and almost irrelevant state to the most significant player
At present China accounts for some 28 % of global emissions, more than double of the second largest emitter, the US. China is therefore – by far – the most important player in the game. In stark contrast to when the process started when China was a relatively small emitter and played a modest role in the negotiations. The basic driver behind this development has been its tremendous economic growth bringing some 800 million people out of poverty, an incredible achievement. The downside is that this development has been fueled by a strong increase in the use of coal, the main driver of CO2 emissions contributing to the exponential increase in emissions. China did not adopt a specific climate policy until 2007, but since then more ambitious measures to curb emissions have been adopted, primarily through its 5 years plans. Consequently, the use of coal has been somewhat reduced and China has emerged as a world leader in developing and applying renewable energy like solar and wind. Ambitious long- term goals have been adopted, but emissions are still rising but at a lower level than it used to. Internationally China is a key player and was decisive in shaping the outcome of the Paris Agreement together with the US.
The US – polarization and instability
As noted at the international level the US has been the most influential player. Domestically the picture is mixed and complex. In general, variations have been strong primarily due to the role of shifting US administrations. Republican administrations have been negative to a strong climate policy and have relied mostly on voluntary measures. Democratic administrations have been more pro-active, but it has been difficult to adopt national legislation due to opposition in a divided Congress. However, there has been more bi-partisan agreement regarding energy policy. Significant progress has therefore been made regarding renewable energy where the US is a world leader together with China and the EU. While Trump tried to dissolve US climate policies, Biden is restoring it and new ambitious long-term goals have been adopted. There are strong variation in the climate policies of the various states in the US  Expansion in the use of shale gas has reduced the use of coal and led to reduced emissions over the last decade or so in the US.   
The EU – ambitious and stable
The EU emits some 8% of global emissions and its share is falling swiftly due to rapidly declining emissions. The EU has been the most consistent pusher for a strong climate policy for a long time, not the least due to the strong and supra national role of the Commission aiming for ever higher ambitions and these have also been delivered in practice by its members. The Western states like Germany and the UK have been most ambitious while the East has been more reluctant but clever package deals have been developed by the Commission. The ETS system is an important backbone of its climate policy. Overall the EU is the most credible and ambitious actor in this area, but it has not been very influential internationally.   

5. The future and basic drivers

Irrespective of an unprecedented diplomatic activity, CO2 emissions have increased by more than 60% since the early 1990s. Thus, the problem is more severe now than it was when the process started. The main reason is the global economic growth, the main driver behind increased emissions. Another driver is population growth. These are the two most important drivers and are outside the control of the negotiators. New technology is the most important driver to reduce emissions and progress has been significant in developing renewable energy contributing to reduce emissions over time. A combination of policies and markets may drive this development in a more positive direction as companies are also now – in general – more preoccupied with being ‘green’ than they used to. The effect of COVID 19 led to reduced emissions in the short term, but its long-term effects are more uncertain. Many states have now adopted very ambitious long-term goals, but short-term goals and their realization is also needed if the ambitious PA goals shall be reached.

6. Brief conclusion

Considerable progress has been made in measuring and explaining regime effectiveness but methodological challenges still remain. Overall, international regimes – or MEAs – have a positive effect but are seldom strong enough to solve malign problems, but effectiveness varies considerably depending on the nature of the problem as well as their problem-solving ability. Lacking effectiveness is caused by the fact that many basic drivers are outside the control of the diplomats and cooperation is voluntary and has no supra-national authority – in contrast to the EU commission.
The making and development of the international climate regime illustrates these challenges as it is a truly malign problem. The North is on the right way to reduce emissions, but emerging actors in the South are most decisive. A combination of public opinion and pressure, the role of the markets and not the least political energy will be decisive if necessary measures are agreed on to solve this problem by the end of this century. Based on present experiences, we should not be too optimistic, but there are some glimmers of hope that the tide will change…