Renewing Multilateralism by Protecting the Planet: Achieving Two Global Goals in One Fell Swoop

28 January 2021   ·   Lucien Chabason, Sébastien Treyer

Protecting the planet depends on international cooperation – but the environmental regime also contributes to the progress of multilateral governance. Germany should use this synergy effect to promote multilateralism by investing in negotiations to expand ecological approaches among trade partners and building up regional cooperation based on shared environmental commons.

In the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declaration adopted at the UN’s 75th anniversary in September 2020, the General Assembly has both assigned the highest level of priority to the protection of the planet and made a commitment to the defense of multilateralism. The protection of the planet constitutes a strategic entry point for the renewal of multilateralism in times when self-interest seems to prevail over cooperation on many issues. Germany could reinforce sustainability approaches as well as contribute to the strengthening of multilateralism through four dimensions: expanding multilateral ecological approaches, convincing trade partners to adhere to sustainability standards, regional cooperation based on shared ecological commons, and combining planetary protection with fundamental rights.

Sustainability and Multilateralism Are Inseparable and Mutually Supportive

The management of the environment and natural resources beyond national boundaries has always been developed within and with the support of multilateral frameworks, on global as well as regional levels. Conversely, international agreements to manage environmental commons have also contributed to the progress of multilateral governance. For instance, the bottom-up approach of the Paris Agreement, fostering universal transformative action while acknowledging national specificities and differentiated responsibilities, illustrates how climate issues have recently given a new impetus to multilateral cooperation. In other fields, scientific support for multilateral action can build on the very structured examples of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The principles and concepts gathered in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992 have contributed to the development of the rules-based international order, for instance by enlarging human rights approaches to environmental rights. Nonetheless and despite their recent political successes, multilateral approaches to protect the planet still lack efficiency and sincerity of commitment.

Advocating European Norms of Planetary Protection to Promote European Ideas of Multilateralism

The recent sequence of international political commitments to the transformation towards carbon neutrality opens a field of both competition and cooperation between major economies, such as China, Japan, the European Union (EU), or the US. The construction of norms and standards to foster and regulate the cooperative race to carbon neutrality will be decisive for the renewal of multilateral institutions. The norms and institutions for the protection of the planet will be a key field of competition for whether a European version of multilateralism will prevail. China, in particular, is developing a parallel structure to existing institutions with its controversial Chinese Belt and Road initiative, which is currently in a “greening” process.

This is why the protection of the planet is a strategic entry point for the Alliance for Multilateralism and in particular Germany as one of its most active members. For the strategy to further a German idea of multilateralism via cooperation in environmental questions to succeed, it needs to be supported by EU initiatives but also rely on distributed leadership. Strategic alliances with countries in the Global South and non-state actors that play a leadership role are essential.

The renovation of multilateralism through the protection of the planet needs to be coordinated across four major areas. These would complement the German initiative to put climate issues on the agenda of the UN Security Council and ensure that the EU is one of the strategic contributors to the establishment of the new norms and standards of the sustainability transformation.

1. Expanding and Implementing Multilateral Ecological Approaches

Key components of the planet’s ecosystems still need to be protected through a global governance mechanism, as illustrated by the negotiations on marine biodiversity protection beyond national jurisdiction. Other ecological regimes need to be reinforced to impact major economic decisions, as is the case for the post-2020 framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Protecting the Amazon forest while respecting Brazilian sovereignty necessitates a mix of governance arrangements between regional scale peer-pressure informed by science, global conventions, and supply chain approaches, involving both civil society and businesses. Germany should maintain its investments in negotiations in these fields, as successful governance solutions would help to redefine the role of multi-stakeholder approaches and science as well as regional approaches in renewed multilateral institutions.

2. Germany Should Push for Sustainable Financial and Economic Trade

The transformation to carbon neutrality has now entered the agenda of conflictual international negotiations like the ones on trade and investments or the discussions on debt and reconstruction within Bretton Woods institutions. The agenda of the EU, in particular with the Green Deal as a major strategic position in globalization, can lead to direct resistance by other countries fearing non-tariff barriers or presenting carbon border adjustment mechanisms as protectionism. Germany, as an influential donor and a major exporting power, could help identify and convince key EU trade partners (for example China, the US, and developing countries) to become allies in the endeavor to achieve high sustainability ambition in financial and in trade negotiations.

3. The EU Should Foster Regional Cooperation Based on Shared Environmental Concerns

The EU has a convincing record on efficient regional cooperation for the protection of large rivers, wildlife, air pollution, and regional seas in cooperation with non-EU countries. Regional approaches are an efficient way to make existing multilateral agreements more effective and to develop new cooperative multilateral agreements, using regional environmental commons as a starting point. The EU should offer its support as a facilitator to develop regional cooperative institutions with its neighboring countries or in other regions, for instance within the framework of the AU-EU partnership.

4. Asserting the Importance of Rights, Democracy and Justice

The EU should explicitly address the potential contradiction between recent affirmations of a European sovereignty, presented as an answer to the demand of European societies for more protection, and the necessity of a cooperative approach on the global scale. In the words of the French president Emmanuel Macron, this tension is resolved if sovereignty is considered inseparable from global responsibility. Germany could insist on global environmental commons as a key area to illustrate such interdependency between sovereignty and cooperation. Once this contradiction is settled, the EU can defend the principles of multilateralism that are necessary for the protection of the planet: transparency and accountability, rights and political space for civil society, participation in democratic decisions at all levels, as well as efficient international justice mechanisms.

The UN General Assembly declaration from September 21, 2020 recalls the importance of the rule of law and invites to “strengthen transparent and accountable governance and independent judicial institutions.” The examples of the Aarhus Convention and the Escazu Agreement can be strategically mobilized by Germany in the framework of the Alliance for Multilateralism as well as with Latin American champions to demonstrate fruitful linkages between environmental protection and broadened human rights, and to expand such regional approaches to other regions.

Germany Should Mobilize Expertise to Rethink the EU’s Relations to Other Regions

Protecting the planet offers at least four strategic entry points for the renovation of multilateralism, contributing not only to a better protection of the environment, but also to foster new types of cooperatives arrangements and new principles for multilateralism in general. In all of these approaches, the attitude of European players with regard to other regions needs to change: co-construction of concepts and approaches with allies in strategic coalitions rather than an imposition of European concepts is needed. Germany could contribute actively to such a change through its capacity to mobilize think tanks, academic experts and institutions in Europe and in other regions. In such a perspective, the White Paper on multilateralism should not be the conclusion but the initiating step of a collective thinking process, fueled by renewed diplomatic vision, strategy, and practices built-up also with non-EU think tanks.

Cooperation Multilateralismus Climate

Lucien Chabason

Lucien Chabason is advisor to the Director of IDDRI, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, Sciences Po, Paris.

Sébastien Treyer

Sébastien Treyer is the Executive Director of IDDRI. @SebastienTreyer @IDDRI_English