Pandemics as well as climate change are two of the most serious crises facing humanity. Climate change increases many health risks. New viruses can spread to other countries and cause deadly outbreaks. Although efforts to combat climate change have been supported by a number of international treaties, legal agreements and other agreements, these tools have not been fully used to improve global health. This should be a major issue for those attending the World Health Assembly in Geneva this month.
I am a lawyer and researcher who specializes in governance of climate change and pandemics. International lawmaking has produced political commitments, such as national emission targets. Protocols have been established to achieve consensus since 1992 by a number of treaties including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although progress has been slow, it is real.
The 2015 Paris Agreement is an example of this. It is not perfect. Each country sets their own non-binding targets. However, the presidents and prime minsters have pledged to reduce their emissions and are now accountable publicly. The countries have acknowledged that climate change (such as droughts, extreme heat and flooding) could infringe the right of health and cause crop failures, infectious diseases, and other disasters. This agreement created political momentum and prompted countries to make more prominent commitments over time.
Pandemics lack the equivalent of global cooperation to support complex global cooperation. There are significant flaws in the International Health Regulations (last revised in 2005). They are legally binding but their enforcement is weak and they are often ignored. Global health, which is often reluctant to be labelled 'political, has not fully utilized the international law's potential to establish compliance norms.
The 2021 World Health Organization member states created a formal negotiating group to examine international law regarding pandemic preparedness, response, prevention and control. Two points were made by me last month when it asked for my input. First, pandemic law must be in compliance with countries' existing legal obligations and acknowledge the fact that climate change will increase outbreaks. A pandemic treaty could be modeled on climate law in order to make countries more transparent and accountable for their commitments. With one exception, the details -- such as viral surveillance, information sharing, and so forth -- are not as urgent as the process. Pandemic law must learn from the failures of climate legislation and ensure justice and equity within and between countries.
To encourage action, the UNFCCC was created. A framework convention is a treaty which sets out legally binding, high-level principles and obligations that will facilitate faster negotiation and adoption. It can help to build political momentum and encourage national commitments. It allows protocols such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement to be developed in parallel or over time. This allows negotiators to build on past progress and establish detailed obligations for specific issues such as technology transfer or equitable vaccination distribution.
The UNFCCC's power lies in the way it creates institutions and processes that support collective action and accountability. The most obvious example is the Conference of Parties (COPs). Remember how COP26 in Glasgow, last year, captured the attention of the world and pushed leaders towards more ambitious goals. COPs are used to clarify, assess and reiterate obligations. COPs are used by advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, and other parts of civil society to hold governments responsible. Citizens can also hold governments accountable for failing to take adequate action as shown in the class action climate lawsuits that have been filed in over 35 countries. These mechanisms could be made more powerful by the strong presence of global public-health organisations.
It is important not to focus on any one treaty, accord, or policy as the final result. There have been many failures. It is important to look at how all these mechanisms work together. Effectiveness under the UNFCCC, Paris Agreement and decisions made by the COPs are dependent on the ability to finance and build capacity. Transparency and accountability are also essential. Pandemic law, for instance, must protect whistle-blowers' rights, which includes health workers.
Mechanisms to encourage compliance are better than punitive actions, which can undermine cooperation. The Paris Agreement established a compliance committee that helps countries make progress towards their emission targets. It provides expert guidance and enforcement plans, as well as identifying non-compliance.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes regular reports that give reliable updates and syntheses the evidence. A pandemic treaty that is effective would also establish an independent process to collect and synthesize scientific evidence for preparedness, response, and recovery. This would direct investments in developing technology and capacity, and inform policy to mitigate outbreaks.
The international climate law is not sufficient. Countries have not yet reduced their emissions sufficiently to prevent a world that is hotter and more sickly. They have allowed climate action. A pandemic treaty is imperfect. However, it is possible to create momentum by taking hard, imperfect steps.