Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs)and the Urban Arena:Localizing the Global Environmental Agenda


Hari Srinivas
Continuing Research Series E-014. April 2015


Abstract
One of the key outputs of the 1992 Rio Summit was to highlight and focus attention on the environment, spawning as a result a host of conventions, conferences and other activities related to different environmental issues (collectively called the 'Rio Agreements'). These activities have generated a number of multilateral environment agreements (MEAs), the most recent of them being the Kyoto Protocol promulgated in December 1997. Each of these MEAs require that countries develop specific implementation mechanisms and fulfill obligations involving reporting, training, public education, and other activities. The MEA themes, in fact, lie at the heart of global environmental issues such as CO2 reduction, eco-efficiency, land degradation, energy systems, technology innovation, etc. Incentive structures - fiscal systems, trade systems and liability systems - have also been proposed as a means of realizing the goals of these MEAs.This working paper focuses on (a) MEAs that are specifically directed at cities, including Local Agenda 21 and Habitat Agenda, and (b) implications of global MEAs on cities. The paper has two components: firstly, it will attempt to build synergies between urban areas and the MEAs in a two way process - how do cities contribute to the conditions and problems addressed by these MEAs? And on the reverse flow, how do these MEAs affect the natural, built-up and social environments of cities? Secondly, it establishs the overlaps, commonalities, inherent relationships and mutual dependencies between these MEAs, focusing on the role of cities and urban stakeholders. It will be grounded in a comprehensive inventory of MEAs with its corresponding urban implications.

INTRODUCTION

Take any of today's environmental problems faced by the inhabitants of this planet, and its causes and pressures can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to cities and its residents' lifestyles and consumption patterns. The forces and processes that constitute 'urban activity' have far-reaching and long-term effects not only on its immediate boundaries, but also on the entire region in which it is positioned. For example, the resources necessary to maintain a city of the size of Greater Tokyo require a land area that is about three and a half time that of Japan as a whole.

Cities and towns in most countries around the world have been gaining considerable attention due to the large number of households migrating to cities and its consequent effects. It has also been due to the centrality of goods and services that cities offer, emerging over the last few decades as the major form of settlement. Proximity to decision-makers and financial markets, large pools of skilled and unskilled workers, and other advantages have made such urban areas the engines of growth for the countries and regions where they are situated. For example, despite the environmental and social problems that it is facing, Bangkok's contribution to the national GDP has been estimated to be more than the combined output of all other cities in Thailand. But population concentration in increasingly smaller land masses has caused a drastic decline in the quality of living both in the residential and work areas. Cities have, in effect, become a barometer of humankind's progress into the 21st century, whether this is an upward or downward trend. Such a scenario has had ripple effects on a variety of sectors such as education, health, labour/job markets, and economic activities.

The concern and problems associated with urban areas and the environment in general have placed such issues high on the agenda of many bilateral and multilateral meetings. The Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro managed to highlight and channel efforts in understanding and acting on environmental problems, making it a key issue to be tackled in trade and commerce, in economic and social development, and in science and technology. Subsequent summits and congresses such as the Social Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, the City Summit/Habitat II in 1996, not to mention innumerable regional, national and local meetings, all have had the larger global environment as an important common denominator in its action plans.

GLOBAL AGREEMENTS

One of the key outputs of the 1992 Rio Summit was the spawning of a host of conventions, agreements and norms related to different environmental issues (collectively called the 'Rio Agreements'). These activities have generated a number of multilateral environment agreements (MEAs), most recent of them being the Kyoto Protocol on climate change promulgated in Kyoto, Japan December 1997.

Global conventions, agreements and norms have to be concretely adapted and implemented at the local level - which is where real environmental action takes place - targeting the man-on-the-street. It is also important for local issues, priorities, opportunities and experiences to be transmitted back to the global level. Both these cyclical flows (Figure 1), require extensive participation and partnership among all urban stakeholders - local governments, businesses, industry, NGOs, community groups, and ordinary citizens - in cities around the world.

Each MEA require that countries develop specific implementation mechanisms and fulfil obligations involving reporting, training, public education, and other activities . The MEA themes, in fact, lie at the heart of global environmental issues of CO2 reduction, eco-efficiency, land degradation, eutrofication, energy systems, technology innovation, etc. Incentive structures - fiscal systems, trade systems and liability systems - have also been proposed as a means of realising the goals of these MEAs .

Box: Urban Areas and Climate Change
The link between COP3 and Urban Environments is a two-way street. Urban areas effect and are affected by climate change (and its primary villain, CO2) both directly and indirectly. The mega concentration of people and industry in cities are a major contributor to CO2 emissions. For example, more than 400 vehicles are added to the already congested streets of Bangkok everyday. Urban activities (vehicles, industrial activities, garbage incineration etc.) generate a considerable amount of CO2. Higher CO2 levels undoubtedly affect urban dwellers, in terms of respiratory illness, higher temperatures, and a host of related maladies.But 'climate change' is more than just CO2 levels. It is more than global warming or ozone depletion. Climate change is more than the sum of its parts. Rain patterns may change, climate and agricultural zones may shift towards the poles, melting glaciers and thermal expansion of sea water may raise sea levels, threatening low-lying coastal areas and small islands - the cause-and-effect patterns are endless. Combating the effects of climate change, from an urban perspective, requires a concerted framework within which disparate actions can be positioned and brought together - so that collective effects and efforts can be realised. A cooperative rather than a confrontational approach needs to be adopted, where local actions at the grassroots level add up to a more balanced environmental existence.

MEAs - A VIEW FROM THE GROUND

The thrust of this paper is that the keyword 'interlinkages' not only refers to horizontal linkages between MEAs, but also to vertical linkages from global MEAs to its local implications. The recent Urban Environmental Forum 2000, held in Cape Town in September 2000, raised the following issues in delineating a local dimension to global MEAs:
  1. Operational relevance of global agreements, conventions and norms - how well do they fit the operational priorities, needs and capabilities at the local level?
  2. Relation to other developmental objectives and priorities - how do the MEAs relate to such issues as poverty alleviation, equity and efficiency?
  3. Participation of all relevant stakeholders - what emphasis do the MEAs place on partnerships and alliances, effective and meaningful process of participation, legitimacy of participant stakeholders, trust etc.?
  4. The balance of standardization and local differentiation - how are local variations (cultural, economic, geographic) reflected in the norms/agreements? How are the particular views of city level implementation reconciled with national or global views?
  5. Economic consequences of implementation - who gains and who loses as a result of implementing global norms and agreements (the distribution of costs and benefits)?
  6. Mixture of tools and mechanisms - how do MEAs facilitate the use of complementary mutually-supporting techniques of implementation; the combination of formal and informal methods; the coherence and consistency of techniques used?
  7. Financial and economic incentives - What incentives exist that utilize 'self-interest' and build on market forces to implement MEAs?
  8. Defining the roles of different levels of government - how is the authority and responsibility among and between levels of government distributed, relative to city-level implementation?
  9. Awareness and understanding - how can (a) the significance of issues, (b) implications of implementing (and not implementing) MEAs (c) short-term and long-term consequences for different stakeholders be built at the local level?
  10. Building political and social commitment - how can commitment be built for MEA implementation at the local level through civil society actors? How can consensus to support implementation be developed and maintained?
  11. Institutionalization - How can the MEA consultation processes be formalized at the local level? How institutional structures and/or processes to support local implementation be developed?
  12. Sovereignty - how can issues such as ceding sovereign national power, national sovereignty versus city-level cross boundary agreements and actions on MEA implementation, be dealt with effectively?

There is a clear need to focus on MEAs that are specifically directed at cities, including Local Agenda 21 and Habitat Agenda, and delineate implications of other MEAs on cities. Specifically, there is a need to build synergies between urban areas and the MEAs in a two way process - how do cities contribute to the conditions and problems addressed by these MEAs? And on the reverse flow, how do these MEAs affect the natural, built-up and social environments of cities? Secondly, we need to establish the overlaps, commonalties, inherent relationships and mutual dependencies between these MEAs, focusing on the role of cities and urban stakeholders.

The genesis of the idea lies in the fact that effective implementation of MEAs lies in strong local and urban governments that can take decisive steps at the local level, particularly in urban areas, that have positive, cumulative and global impacts. This calls for a framework of supporting institutions (including the MEA secretariats) at all levels, that support and prop-up urban authorities/local governments. MEA secretariats will have to work in cohort with local governments (or networks or associations of local governments ) in generating awareness and disseminating information to link MEA obligations and implementation structures to the policies, programmes and projects that are instituted by local governments. A host of regional, national and local organizations also need to assist the two actors in these processes.

KEY ISSUES THAT AFFECT LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

Quite clearly, there are a number of issues that local governments will need to take into account in catering to global environmental agreements, but also to create a local environment that has positive global impacts. This calls for a clear understanding of the implications of MEAs at the local level; linking action at the local level and understanding their implications at the global level; a model framework of policy and programme development for local governments and authorities; delineation of roles and responsibilities of urban and local stakeholders for MEA implementation and action; and understanding of local capacities and skills that need to be built for the local implementations of global MEAs
  • An understanding of the implications of MEAs at the local level
    As mentioned in the introduction, it is quite clear that the obligations and implication of global and multilateral environmental agreements have definite (but in many cases, not clearly delineated) local dimensions - where both the problems and the solutions start.
  • Linking of action at the local level and their implications at the global level
    The widely accepted mantra of 'Think Global, Act Local' will need to go beyond rhetoric - justifications and clarifications will have to be sought for local environmental action in terms of their direct and indirect global impacts. This linking is critical not only for its impact on the global environment, but also for facilitating participation among local communities, and inspiring action.
  • A model policy framework for local governments in environmental management
    Current environmental management policies at the local level are piecemeal, and scattered, with responsibilities and task allocations made to appropriate departments and agencies among local government entities. An overall framework of policies and programmes, along with their goals/objectives needs to be developed that will allow the placing of actions to be taken, without ignoring goals and objectives of the city as a whole.
  • Delineation of roles and responsibilities of urban and local stakeholders for MEA implementation and action
    In order to operationalize the framework mentioned above, it is very critical to delineate roles and responsibilities of urban and local stakeholders. These will not only help in avoiding overlap and repetition, but will also enable making best use of the strengths and skills of each stakeholder. It will enable the right actors to take the right actions for local environmental management.
  • Understanding of local capacities and skills that need to be built for local implementations of global MEAs
    Each global MEA has a set of unique obligations and actions that need to be taken. But other steps are cross-cutting (for example, a comprehensive 'State of the Urban Environment' report for cities, or a sustainability indicators report), and are necessary for all MEAs. Obligations under each MEA needs to be translated into capacities and skills that needs to be built at the local level.
With more than half the global population now opting to stay in cities and urbanized areas, it is becoming increasingly obvious that cities will play an increasingly important role in shaping the global environment - in terms of both contributing to the problem, but also in actively generating solutions.

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Contact: Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org