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Faces are glum here in Warsaw, host city of the UN climate talks known as COP19,  and for good reason. Japan has slashed its ambitions for cutting carbon emissions, following its decision to end its nuclear programme. Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol last year.  Australia, which has decided not to send a minister to these talks, is busy getting rid of its carbon price laws. With such gloominess so close on the heels of the devastation wreaked in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, one could really become depressed about the state of multilateral deal-making.

In the midst of such depression, it is a welcome surprise that the environment is the only area of sustained policy improvement among the 27 countries ranked in the Commitment to Development Index, the 11th edition of which was published on Monday. The CDI  tracks whether affluent countries are living up to their global responsibilities, including their contribution to good stewardship of the environment. The other components are aid, trade, finance, migration, security, and technology.

We will discuss the trends in a later blog post, but here’s the short version for the environment component: it has improved mainly because countries have taken the necessary steps to reduce the depletion of the ozone layer, as agreed in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which Kofi Annan described as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”

Let me put that another way: the only significant improvement in the development policies affluent countries, as ranked by the CDI, is mainly due to an international treaty that set legally binding numerical targets. The experience of successfully protecting the ozone layer shows that international cooperation, based on sound scientific analysis, is possible and that international agreements can be effective.

That’s exactly the kind of agreement that we need to come out of the UNFCCC climate talks. We will report more fully from Warsaw in a separate blog post, but it won’t surprise you that progress is disappointing. The gradual salami slicing of ambition as each year passes is unpleasantly reminiscent the slow death of the multilateral trade talks. I was briefly and ingloriously one of the UK civil servants dealing with trade negotiations and had a ringside seat as the Doha Round slipped into a coma. Without a global agreement, we are stuck with a spaghetti bowl of bilateral and regional trade deals. This is bad news for developing countries, which are likely to benefit most from a rules-based multilateral system. Without multilateral agreements, poor countries can more easily be coerced into unfair bilateral or regional agreements by the economic and political strength of wealthy countries. We could make much faster progress against poverty and global inequality if we were able to reach and implement meaningful multilateral agreements. But it now seems to be beyond our reach to repeat the success of the Montreal Protocol.

Some of the issues we monitor in the Commitment to Development Index reflect short-term trade-offs between the interests of wealthy nations and poor countries, for which the immediate costs for wealthy countries are justified by the long-term benefits of living in a more prosperous and safe world. But for many issues that are important to developing countries, there would be benefits, not costs, to wealthy nations.  In these cases, it is not the trade-off between short and long term interests that inhibits progress, but the difficulties of international collective action. It would be in every country’s interests to reach and to stick to agreements to remove trade barriers, tackle climate change, prevent overfishing, exchange information to prevent tax evasion, and limit arms proliferation. Our failure to make progress in these areas, and others which also have important effects on developing countries, is a reminder of the paucity of effective institutions for reaching and enforcing international agreements that would benefit every country.  Here in Warsaw, finding solutions for the problems of international cooperation seems more urgent than ever.   

I am grateful to Elwyn Grainger Jones for making the connection between the disappointment in the climate change talks and the trade talks.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.