Sustainability problems are global in scope and addressing them requires international cooperation. Even local environmental issues have implications for global sustainability. The global nature of sustainability threats both multiplies and amplifies the need for collaborative approaches and common solutions.
International cooperation involving multiple stakeholders is the most powerful and effective policy instrument we have. States that work with actors to create networking opportunities and secure voluntary agreements are more likely to achieve their policy objectives. International communities working together can circumvent protracted legal challenges, public disagreement, and conflict.
Cooperation is both desirable and necessary for a wide range of sustainability-related transboundary issues including climate change, pollution, resource depletion, and commercial fishing. International cooperation has a long and proven track record. Despite differing interests and a diverse array of actors and stakeholders (multiple levels of government, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, organizations, industry, corporations, communities, scientists, investors, advocacy groups, activists, and Indigenous peoples) nations came together in 2015 to sign the landmark Paris Agreement.
We benefit from thousands of treaties and transnational deals. Cooperation between NGOs, producers, manufacturers, and multinational corporations produced arrangements like the U.N. Global Compact, ISO 14000, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Forest Stewardship Council. We also negotiated international agreements related to species and ecosystem conservation like the Convention on Biological Diversity. This is in addition to the many agreements on development, trade, and security.
Multilateral treaties can be local like those governing air quality and acid rain or broad like the Canada/Chile agreement. They can be global like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or they can be both broad and global like the Paris Agreement. There are also side agreements where international actors help to broaden and deepen state efforts to address sustainability problems.
Ideally, networks of stakeholders come together with the government to forge a public policy that simultaneously addresses environmental, social, and economic concerns. Overall, it should be clear that we benefit from partnerships between civil society, organizations, businesses, and government.
On the one hand, cooperation is undermined by environmental change, but it can also enhance it. For example, the literature on internationally shared rivers shows that drought increases tensions to a certain level at which point the parties decide to cooperate out of necessity. Regardless of why stakeholders come together, cooperation is a demonstrably necessary part of achieving objectives, reaching goals, and fulfilling expectations.
Successful international cooperation efforts are a complex web of interconnected, multi-faceted arrangements. Barriers to cooperation include uncertainty, mistrust, conflicts of interest, differing views of causality, and complex linkages. However, the most significant barrier may be the sovereign state system which ignores the global commons and is dominated by self-interest.
We need a new approach that breaks with 20th C forms of governance, one that is not built around old institutions or traditional notions of nation-states. Such a post sovereignty approach looks at public goods as border transcending,
Advocates of the post sovereignty approach are called Institutionalists and they think globalization makes international cooperation both essential and inevitable. As they see it, we need to guide and channel globalization so that it enhances cooperation as part of a dialectical imperative in the struggle against environmental degradation. While globalization may be seen as a sustainability problem, it also increases interconnectedness, which lays the foundation for international cooperation.
International cooperation is an approach that goes a long way towards repairing environmental problems and addressing governance hurdles. It can help to overcome the collective action problem and avoid the free-rider problem. Collaboration also puts pressure on governments and all stakeholders to find common ground and make concessions.
So, while we need to use command and control governance instruments to hold those who create sustainability problems accountable (eg forcing them to take responsibility for misnamed “externalities”), we also need structural change. This implies moving away from strictly hierarchical governance structures and replacing them with an approach that prioritizes public-private partnerships and other forms of cooperation. International organizations can play an important role in helping to reduce environmental impacts by contributing to agenda-setting, capacity building, as well as managing and linking scientific networks to intergovernmental or governmental processes.
The goal of international cooperation is to reduce human pressure on sustainability and orienting this activity toward a more harmonious relationship between meeting human needs and environmental quality. With this in mind, we need to overcome the challenges associated with international cooperation so that we can forge governance agreements that bring together a diverse array of stakeholders. We must also ensure that the most vulnerable populations, including minorities, the less affluent, and the less powerful, are not ignored or delegitimized.
In the process of encouraging collaboration, it is important to understand that the positions of the stakeholders are born out of specific social and political contexts. The views and positions of the stakeholders are shaped by this context and ultimately inform the compromises that are necessary to gain political support.
We need cooperation to deal with a wide range of environmental problems. We can enhance opportunities for cooperation by building and strengthening institutions that promote state adherence to collective goals and norms. While the mixing of private and public action can improve sustainability, to achieve broad-spectrum, far-reaching international action we need governance arrangements that facilitate cooperation. This means we need to change economic activities and acknowledge that traditional command and control governance is not fostering enough collaboration. We must recognize that new approaches to governance and new policy instruments have been better at bringing together a greater range of public and private actors.
International cooperation can help us reduce our impact on the environment, raise standards of living, and perhaps even allow us to peacefully coexist with other species. Accelerating the transition towards sustainability and dealing with the global nature of sustainability problems require that we pay special attention to governance efforts focusing specifically on international cooperation.