Indirect Climate Change Regulation: The Case for Freshwater and Ocean Agreements

Indirect Climate Change Regulation: The Case for Freshwater and Ocean Agreements

Re-posted from my 2014 guest blog post at the University of Pennsylvania's RegBlog

Climate change presents the international community with a monumental regulatory problem that transcends generations, sectors, and political boundaries. Yet comprehensive climate change legislation on the international and national level seems a long way off, as countries appear unwilling to alter the course of their economic development without reciprocal commitments from the rest of the international community. In the absence of such comprehensive legislation, legal mechanisms that indirectly regulate climate change have emerged as viable, albeit interim, options. Among these mechanisms, international freshwater and ocean agreements are unappreciated sources of indirect climate change regulation.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, for example, aims to reverse the loss of wetlands through the adoption of “wise use” or sustainable use principles. The Ramsar Convention requires 168 contracting states to designate at least one area as a wetland of “international importance” in which the wise use of the wetland must be promoted in order to maintain its ecological character. With wetlands covering more than six percent of the Earth’s surface and playing a key role as sinks for carbon emissions, the convention’s ability to mobilize international support for wetlands conservation and wise utilization is a critical—and often neglected—component of the community’s mitigation and adaptation approach to climate change. To date 2,188 sites have been listed as internationally important wetlands, covering a total area of over 805,440 square miles.

Just as the Ramsar Convention represents an important international effort to protect wetlands, the 1994 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) aims to foster international cooperation to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. The UNCCD explicitly recognizes the contribution “that combating desertification can make to achieving the objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” presumably because the challenges of combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought are so intricately linked with climate change. Not only does climate change exacerbate desertification by making precipitation patterns more irregular, more direct forms of desertification—such as unsustainable agricultural practices and deforestation—eliminate another barrier ecosystem capable of absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Thus, the UNCCD’s ability to mobilize support for combating desertification has a significant impact on climate change mitigation and adaptation, while the treaty’s unique integration with the UNFCCC provides a model for future international environmental agreements to fit their objectives into a climate change framework.

Treaties regulating the world’s oceans have even greater potential to indirectly regulate climate change.

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