• Khushi Kapoor

Obstacles to international cooperation on climate change




When we talk about global issues, environment or climate change are one of the first things that comes across our minds. These are the things which are inherently transnational- environmental threats are not confined to regions or states, they transcend national borders, especially in the context of globalized economy.

This makes it imperative for states and other actors to come together at the international level so that a meaningful progress can be made with respect to these issues.


Over the past twenty years or so, the world has developed a vast array of international agreements- approximately 900 international environmental agreements worldwide have been negotiated and set into force. The necessity for international action on environmental problems was brought to the world’s attention first by scientists and then by inter-governmental meetings, the most notable of which was the ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972.


In spite of that, for a number of reasons international cooperation has sometimes been difficult to achieve. Environment has been an arena of ideological and political debate- disagreements about the seriousness and the nature of problems and they can be tackled best have emerged.

“Can environmental problems be dealt with within the existing socio-economic system, or is this system the source of those problems?”





Some notable obstacles that have been faced:


Conflict between tackling environmental issues and national interests

If sates are to tackle global warming, they have to make use of expensive mitigation techniques and adaptation strategies along with lowering their levels of economic growth- all this imposes costs on individual states. Besides, states which are more economically developed will have to incur greater economic costs, and so they will be even more reluctant to undertake actions.


In such circumstances states are encouraged to be ‘free riders’, partaking benefits of action against the problem but not taking part in the action itself.


“It is entirely rational, therefore, for each actor to try to ‘pay’ as little as possible to overcome the problem of climate change. This creates a situation in which states are either unwilling to agree to binding targets, or if targets, binding or otherwise, are developed, these are likely to be set below the level needed to deal effectively with the problem.”


Tensions between developed and developing states

“The transfer of much of manufacturing industry to the developing world means that over a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in many developed countries are actually emitted outside their borders.”


States differ in their approaches to the problem of burden-sharing and their capacity to address environmental problems.


The developing states opines that it is the historic responsibility of the developed world towards the accumulated stock of carbon emitted since the beginning of industrialization. “In effect, developed countries have used up a large part of the safe carbon-absorbing capacity of the atmosphere, and made substantial gains in terms of economic growth and prosperity as a result.”


The developing countries on the other hand are hard hit by climate change as well as they do not have the necessary technology and capabilities to deal with it.

With regard to these arguments, the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was accepted in the Rio Declaration at the Earth Summit- imposing heavier burdens on developed countries. Also, countries like India and China and other developing countries were exempted from the requirements of Kyoto Protocol. India signed and ratified it in 2002.

The developed ones on the other hand believe that they “cannot be held responsible for actions whose consequences were quite unknown at the time they were carried out, and, anyway, those who were responsible are largely dead and gone.”


The targets should be set according to the current emission levels only, treating developed and developing countries alike. With the growing importance of emerging economies like India, China and Brazil, the developing world needs to play a significant role or otherwise it would be impossible to meet the global targets.


These conflicts between the north and the south have often resulted in inadequate compliance with existing environmental agreements as well as deadlocks in ongoing treaty negotiations.


Economic obstacles

According to radical ecologists, the problem of inadequate progress in responding to climate change has much deeper, structural roots, and is not just about the difficulty to achieve international cooperation. It is about “the underlying economic and ideological forces that have shaped capitalist modernity.”


They criticize the anti-ecological inclination of capitalism at both national and global levels.

“In particular, profit-maximizing businesses will always be drawn towards the most easily available and cheapest source of energy: fossil fuels. “


Ideological obstacles

‘Green capitalism’ is seen merely as a contradiction in terms- “short term profitability will dominate their thinking, rather than issues to do with ecological sustainability.”


At an ideological level, materialist values that dominate modern society, as exhibited by the states’ attachment to carbon industrialization, creates a profound disjuncture between humankind and nature, according to deep ecologists.


“Materialism and consumerism mean that the economic and political systems are geared towards economic growth and the quest for rising living standards. From this perspective, the difficulties of tackling climate change stem not only from the problem of persuading people to forego at least a measure of their material prosperity, but, more challengingly, from the task of encouraging people to revise their values.”




Although now there has been a consensus that climate change is happening and that it is the result of the emissions since the beginning of industrialization, disagreements still exist about its consequences and the seriousness of the challenge, as well as how it should be tackled.



Source: Andrew Heywood, ‘Global Politics’

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