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Voluntary agreements: a sceptic’s view

Dominic Hogg

For those who monitor the development of international environmental law, there are concerns that what has become known as ‘treaty congestion’ may have done as much to hinder as to help the development of genuinely effective environmental policy.

In practice, however, the alternative – no treaty, and no normative orientation for governments to deal with pressing problems of a global nature – seems less palatable. The key seems to be in ensuring coherence in implementation at the level of nation states, ensuring that commitments cannot be jettisoned as the political pendulum swings from side to side in a given nation.

There is now a plethora of voluntary commitments to which businesses are signing up. Barely a global gathering goes by without the semi-obligatory flourish of pens as the great and the good sign up to the latest set of poorly articulated objectives targeting yet-to-be defined things.

Forgive my scepticism, but the evidence in support of voluntary agreements is weak where those agreements are not supported by a credible threat of an alternative policy mechanism. Too often, they seem to be a means to forestall more serious action rather than being backed by the threat of such.

If we were to evaluate such agreements against what might have happened in their absence, some might have to be evaluated against alternative scenarios in which implementation of new policies delivers more meaningful action. The proliferation of pledges seems far more susceptible to fail for the same reasons which concerned those highlighting the problem of treaty congestion: the bottom line is that we cannot save the planet by signatures alone.

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