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Intra- and international constraints to addressing environmental problems

Due to the collective impact of all countries’ CO2e and CFC emissions, anthropogenic climate change and ozone layer depletion cannot be solved without international agreement between countries. But international agreement is fraught with difficulty, not least because it involves action in the political arena both within countries and between them. ‘Political constraints’ refer to how the activities associated with the governance of a country – and the debate between parties having power – is subject to many inhibitions in relations between said countries and parties (Oxford Languages, n.d.). These restrictions must be overcome if international environmental agreements are to be put in place. The aim of this essay is to explore, through the use of analytical frameworks including national interests and contention over values and knowledge, the political constraints and hurdles that countries have faced when forming MEAs on global climate change and ozone layer depletion.

The domestic politics and interests of nations greatly affect the international agreements they are willing to enter into. There continues to be a tension between the need for domestic economic growth, which inevitably involves the use of fossil fuels, and the need to reduce CO2e emissions in order to mitigate climate change. President Trump’s 2017 announcement that the US would withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement, and his subsequent statements, highlight this tension. In the eyes of the President and the majority of the Republican Party, which has a long history of climate change denial (Collomb, 2014, p. 15), domestic economic growth and the preservation of fossil fuel industries must win out against international carbon reduction initiatives. The following excerpt is from President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal:

The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States… The Paris Accord would undermine our economy, hamstring our workers, weaken our sovereignty, impose unacceptable legal risk, and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world (BBC News, 2017).

Analysts said the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement would make it more difficult for the world to reach the goal of reducing emissions to keep the increase in global temperatures well below 2°C compared with preindustrial levels. A US exit from the Paris agreement would be disastrous, since the country contributes about 15% of global emissions of CO2 and is also a significant source of finance and technology for developing countries in their efforts to fight rising temperatures. This move by the President also highlighted a rejection of science and the need to please his supporters; Trump supporters welcomed the withdrawal, as for them this is less about science and more about sending a signal to so-called global elites (BBC News, 2017). The withdrawal also demonstrates the US’s strong fallback position – its ability to walk away from agreements without suffering – which would have given it a lot of bargaining power if the Paris Accord members had been willing to renegotiate. This contrasts with, for example, low-lying island states whose very existence is threatened by the exercise of threat points (Brown, 2019, pp. 180-1). The example clearly demonstrates the significant political constraints and setbacks that are preventing the international community from effectively addressing climate change. The election of Joe Biden in 2020 and his promise to re-join the Paris Agreement has restored hope for many (Newburger, 2020), but it cannot undo the environmental damage caused by the Trump Administration and it will take many years for the US to rebuild its credibility.

Political conflicts involving the balance of domestic economic growth and international environmental cooperation were also present during negotiations for the Montreal Protocol. Several important EU members, including France, Italy, and the UK, were opposed to the agreement because they had important commercial interests in CFC production. However, the accession of Belgium to the EU Presidency added weight to the pro-agreement forces, since Belgium, along with Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, were significant advocates for protecting the ozone layer. This ultimately led to a strong agreement; the EU moved from proposing a freeze on CFC production to finally agreeing a compromise of a 50% cut suggested by the US (Brown, 2019, p. 216). This shows that political constraints can be overcome by the internal dynamics of international institutions like the EU, and by building consensus based on scientific evidence of the dangers of inaction on environmental issues.

The ratification of the Montreal Protocol was a success in the face of significant political constraints and challenges. The policy measures that are most easily adopted and implemented tend to be those that offer tangible benefits to certain sectors of the economy or segments of society while costs are widely dispersed or indeterminate, and conversely, the measures that are hardest to adopt and implement tend to be those where costs are concentrated to specific sectors or segments while benefits are widely dispersed or indeterminate (Hovi et al, 2009, p. 27). Perhaps this can explain the success of international efforts to reduce the production of ozone-depleting substances, and the comparative failure of international efforts to reduce GHGs. The benefit of the reduced prevalence of diseases caused by a depleted ozone layer, for example skin cancer and cataracts, is tangibly felt by countries’ health services needing to spend less on treating those diseases. In contrast, the benefits of a stable climate are not focussed on specific sectors of the economy but are widely dispersed, while the costs of implementing carbon reduction policies tend to be highly concentrated to specifically the energy sector. These widely dispersed incentives are one of the many constraints that domestic politics places on countries that are trying to reach international environmental agreements.

International cooperation is largely confined to measures that can be established by consensus among the main actors. The existence of international anarchy makes it hard to design and enforce an international agreement that fully meets the requirements of an optimal long-term plan (Hovi et al, 2009, pp. 20-1) since there is no ‘world government’ that can easily punish countries that do not comply with agreements. This anarchy problem, coupled with the increased likelihood of free-riding in the case of climate change and ozone depletion, both create a politically constraining context within which international agreements must be reached. The benefits of stratospheric ozone and reduced climate change accrue to all countries, not only those that reduce their emissions of GHGs and CFCs, and it is therefore tempting for each country to leave a disproportionate share of the mitigation burden to others. The long-term nature of climate change and ozone depletion also makes the temptation to free-ride even stronger (Hovi et al, 2009, p. 30).

The Kyoto Protocol is evidence of this free-riding phenomenon. Although people have argued that Kyoto was a useful first step towards significant GHG emissions cuts, many maintain that it is an ineffective and inadequate regime (Brown, 2019, p. 152). Of the 165 countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, only 37 have emissions limitation targets. Those countries are responsible for only about 20% of global emissions, and have pledged to reduce their net emissions by only 5.2% on average compared to 1990 levels, which overall would not limit global warming to 1.5°C. So while some countries were well underway to fulfilling their emissions reduction targets, including Germany, Sweden, and the UK, other countries like the developing nations are exempt from emissions targets. These countries, and the US which failed to ratify the Protocol (UNFCCC, n.d.), can be described as free-riders.


BBC News (2017). Paris climate deal: Trump pulls US out of 2015 accord. (Online) Available at: (Accessed 23 November 2020).

BBC News (2018). Ozone: The Earth's protective shield is repairing. (Online) Available at: (Accessed 26 November 2020).

Brown, W. (2019). Chapter 4 Collective action or collective failure? The international politics of climate change; Chapter 5 International cooperation: the ozone layer; Chapter 6 International cooperation: endangered species and waste. In: P. Jehlička & D. Humphreys, eds. Environmental policy in an international context: Book 1. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 145-269.

Collomb, J.-D. (2014). The Ideology of Climate Change Denial in the United States. European Journal of American Studies, Spring, 9(1).

Gough, C. & Shackley, S. (2001). The Respectable Politics of Climate Change: The Epistemic Communities and NGOs. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), April, 77(2), pp. 329-345.

Haas, P. (1992). Banning Chlorofluorocarbons: Epistemic Community Efforts to Protect Stratospheric Ozone. International Organization, Winter, 46(1), pp. 187-224.

Hovi, J., Sprinz, D. F. & Underdal, A. (2009). Implementing Long-Term Climate Policy: Time Inconsistency, Domestic Politics, International Anarchy. Global Environmental Politics, 20 March, 9(3), pp. 20-39.

Kroll, S. & Shogren, J. F. (2008). Domestic politics and climate change: international public goods in two-level games. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21(4), pp. 563-583.

Newburger, E. (2020). Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Here’s what happens next. (Online) Available at: (Accessed 23 November 2020).

Oxford Languages (n.d.) Politics. (Online) Available at: (Accessed 23 November 2020).

UNFCCC (n.d.) Kyoto Protocol - Targets for the first commitment period. (Online) Available at: (Accessed 25 November 2020).

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