Nation-states aren’t set up to deal with global problems
As obvious as it sounds, the climate doesn’t have borders. This means that when greenhouse gases are emitted, they don’t just magically float over a country they’re emitted in, but contribute to system-wide impacts that affect the global climate. When you consider that fact, it seems a little strange that we’re trying to solve the problem by slicing it up into parts and leaving it to respective countries to deal with. This approach doesn’t lend itself to a unified, coordinated response, which is why emissions continue to increase when they need to dramatically decrease.
The democratic nation-state is a system of governance that has worked to varying degrees of success, for hundreds of years. But this organising principle starts to break down when dealing with global problems. Our approach to solving the climate crisis revolves around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was established in 1994 with the goal of preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system based on the latest scientific understanding.
Since its formation, the member countries of the Convention have met at a Climate Change Conference (COP), held every year since 1995. Each COP meeting began with optimism that this year would be the year that the COP would finally end with a recognised agreement, committing each member country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the UNFCCC’s guidelines. Each COP ended with disappointment as an agreement failed to materialise.
A major point of contention in striking a climate deal is that industrialised nations have been responsible for the vast majority of emissions. Any deal would involve these emitters reducing the carbon intensity of their economies while allowing developing nations a window of time to increase emissions. Some of the largest emitters, including the US, China and India, were unwilling to do so because of a feeling that committing to a deal would place a straitjacket over their respective economies, slowing down avenues for economic growth.
At COP 21, held in Paris in 2015, that resistance appeared to melt away. The 196 member countries agreed to the Paris Agreement — a legally binding climate deal that brought every nation into a common cause “to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.” While the legally binding nature of the agreement encourages governments to plan long-term, governments operating in democracies are driven by the short-term desire to remain in power. The success or failure of a government often hinges on economic performance. Meaning short-term economic policies that undermine efforts to achieve net zero may well be prioritised if it gives a government a boost in polls and increases its chances of remaining in power.
On top of this, in democracies, different political parties have very different attitudes towards the environment. The efforts of one government can be undermined by the next government if they don’t share similar views on how best to achieve the goal. Or worse, if they feel no need to achieve the goal at all.
That’s what happened in the US, where the Obama administration initially agreed to the Paris Agreement. This all changed when President Trump came to power in 2016. Trump made coal a central focus of his economic vision. To protect fossil fuel interests, he pulled the US out of the agreement in 2020. In 2021, President Biden pushed the US back into the agreement. The example shows there is no guarantee that successive governments will have the same motivation or desire to achieve the target. That the US was able to pull out of the agreement on a whim shows how precarious sustained support for the agreement is. If a country can pull out so quickly, it’s not clear what happens if a country fails to meet targets in the future.
The bottom line is that there are no repercussions for countries that pull out of the deal or fail to live up to agreements. The UNFCCC acts as a mediator between countries and can offer advice, but it has no power or authority to dictate what they end up doing. As hard as it was to get 196 countries to agree on a climate deal, it’s even harder to maintain momentum and ensure each country implements strategies that will reduce emissions. The obvious weakness in having each country develop their own strategy is how can you ensure everyone is doing what’s necessary to achieve an overall objective? And how can you manage all of these different countries with varying priorities? The short answer is you can’t. And the proof is in the pudding.
Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) allow the UNFCCC to determine whether the world is on course to reach net zero by 2050 and to reach the global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. Based on current NDCs, we’re way off the mark, with the world on track for 2.7 °C warming by 2100. And that’s a best-case scenario. The number of countries pledging to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century or soon after may be growing, but so do emissions.
In 2021, global CO2 emissions reached 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest level in history. Ultimately governments don’t seek to do what’s in humanity’s best interests but what is in the best interests of their respective countries. This can lead to free riding, where a nation receives the benefits of reduced GHG emissions in other nations without contributing to the costs. It’s understandable why free riding takes place; if not meeting emissions targets is in the best interests of a country economically, where is the incentive to incur the costs of reducing emissions?
If we were to wipe the slate clean and come up with the best organising principle to deal with the climate crisis, a logical approach would be to mirror the Earth system and create a global government which establishes a vision of a sustainable society operating within environmental limits. Knowing what our desired outcome is would enable us to think strategically about how best to manoeuvre towards that vision of success. Each region would then be obligated to implement actions that help achieve that strategy.
Clearly, though, it’s not as simple as wiping the slate clean and hoping everyone forgets that the nation-state has shaped their lives. Love for one’s country and the patriotism it inspires is encouraged. It provides people with identity and a sense of pride. It’s naive to imagine that governments would give up their autonomy or, maybe more importantly, that people within countries who have such a strong sense of patriotism would accept any such decision. The nation-state hasn’t appeared out of thin air; culture and self-identity are deeply intertwined with the country we were born and socialised within. That socialisation locks us into a way of seeing the world that makes it hard to contemplate the world being any other way. So the nation-state goes unquestioned, and we continue to deal with a problem we’re not set up to deal with.