Secretary General, Council of the European Union 1999-2009
Secretary General, NATO 1995-1999
Foreign Minister, Spain 1992-1995
Multilateralism or Bust
by JAVIER SOLANA
Published: Project Syndicate, 19 May 2021
Crises such as climate change and COVID-19 require multilateral responses, and a critical mass of countries can alter the course of events, for better or worse. Despite current geopolitical tensions, leaders must not lose sight of major global threats – and of the need to find common ground.
MADRID – In early 1981, a few days before Jimmy Carter handed over the US presidency to Ronald Reagan, a short story on page 13 of The New YorkTimes mentioned a report from the Council on Environmental Quality. This body, tasked with advising the US president, sounded the alarm about the link between the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and global warming. “Efforts should be begun immediately to develop and examine alternative global energy futures,” the report stated, also emphasizing that “international collaboration in assessing the CO2 problem is particularly important.”
Despite this and many other warnings dating back to the 1960s, Reagan distanced himself from the Carter administration’s environmentalist agenda. In a symbolic gesture, the new president even removed the solar panels that his predecessor had installed on the White House.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, intergovernmental cooperation on climate change only took its first concrete steps in the late 1980s. And not until the 2015 Paris agreement did the world finally establish a binding framework mobilizing all countries in a determined quest to mitigate global warming.
Reaching such a consensus was not easy. How to distribute responsibilities adequately has always been a thorny question in multilateral negotiations on climate action. But no obstacle or aspiration – no matter how legitimate – justifies the many years of international discord and neglect regarding this issue.
The threat that already disturbed scientists a half-century ago has steadily grown since then. Between 1991 and 2019 alone, the world emitted more CO2 into the atmosphere than between 1751 and 1990. Faced with this reality, global climate summits such as this November’s United Nations COP26 gathering in Glasgow are vitally important. We simply cannot afford more time-wasting and failures.
Fortunately, there are reasons for hope. Many who previously regarded international relations as a struggle to preserve or alter the balance of power now assume that states will have to adjust their priorities in view of twenty-first-century challenges. Although climate change will not affect everyone equally, the threat to our ecosystems and to humanity as a whole is so great that shortsighted tactics are out of the question. The only way out is for governments to build strategic trust aimed at generating shared benefits.
Moreover, economic trends are increasingly favorable. The cost of solar and wind energy is plummeting, helping to drive the green transition even when governments’ environmental policies are out of step. In the United States, for example, former President Donald Trump’s deregulatory crusade did not allow him to fulfill his promise of revitalizing coal (the most polluting of fossil fuels), owing to fierce competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables.
But market forces alone will not suffice. If we want the energy transition to materialize on time, governments’ must play an essential role. The European Union has embedded this philosophy in its European Green Deal, which aims to develop cutting-edge technologies, improve energy efficiency, and compensate the groups most affected by the transition. The Chinese government’s industrial policies have led to spectacular growth in renewables, although the country’s economy remains heavily dependent on coal. For its part, US President Joe Biden’s administration intends to launch a huge post-pandemic stimulus plan focused on building sustainable infrastructure.
Whereas Trump despised renewables – as if nothing had changed since Reagan’s days – Biden doesn’t want to lose ground in the race to dominate the green technologies of the future. This competitive dynamic can generate a virtuous cycle. Add in the growing environmental awareness of citizens everywhere, and leaders have greater incentive than ever to be ambitious – as generally reflected in the new emissions-reduction commitments that many countries have already made ahead of COP26.
Still, we will not succeed unless we redouble our efforts. For example, the world should also agree on common indicators that allow each country’s climate objectives to be measured and compared easily, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently urged.
Closer international cooperation on environmental challenges should spill over into other spheres. After all, there is no shortage of global problems that require coordinated action.
The most obvious example is COVID-19 – another risk that caught us unprepared despite repeated warnings, and that many governments have subsequently managed in an excessively self-absorbed way. Earlier this month, two expert panels associated with the World Health Organization praised an initiative – sponsored by some 30 world leaders – to establish an international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness.
Nor should we overlook the shortcomings of pandemic cooperation in the economic sphere. The G20 has not been up to the task in the current crisis, doing too little to alleviate developing countries’ debt. Like the WHO and the World Trade Organization, two other fundamental pillars of global governance, the G20 is in urgent need of reform to shore up its legitimacy and responsiveness.
Regulation of cyberspace also should be a high priority. The world’s leading powers have remarkable offensive capabilities in this realm, but their high degree of digital connectivity makes them vulnerable, as the recent cyberattack on the largest US oil pipeline has shown. These powers must urgently agree on a set of ground rules that promote security in cyberspace and address the potentially harmful effects of artificial intelligence. Some progress is already being made in this regard within the UN.
On climate change and other issues requiring multilateral responses, a critical mass of countries can alter the course of events, for better or worse. Although we live in an era of rising geopolitical tension, we must never lose sight of the major challenges that threaten us all and force us to find common ground. Anticipating crises, isolating areas of friction, competing peacefully, and cooperating in areas of mutual interest is the recipe for a safer, more prosperous, and sustainable twenty-first century.