Are national laws the key to global climate action?

by Terry Townshend, Rafael Aymbar Jimenez and Marlene Grundstrom, GLOBE International
Monday, 9 June 2014 11:00 GMT

The proposal under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants is seen before a news conference in Washington on June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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Domestic legislation is more durable than a commitment made at an international forum, legislators say

On June 6-8, at the invitation of the president of the Mexican Congress and Senate, the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International) convened senior legislators from over 80 countries to discuss how to strengthen the international response not just to climate change, but also wider sustainable development challenges.

With some 400 lawmakers in attendance, this was the largest ever gathering of legislators focused on sustainability issues, and key outcomes included agreement of a landmark Legislators’ Resolution.

This historic agreement sets out a series of recommendations for the international process about how to strengthen effectiveness of the response to the challenge of sustainable development. 

However, more importantly it will focus on the steps and actions that legislators can take themselves now – without waiting for the outcomes of UN negotiations.

First, it calls for undertaking a comprehensive assessment of existing national legislative responses to address, and prepare for the impacts of, climate change to ensure they are consistent with the international goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.  This step will be critical to providing foundations for an international agreement in 2015 to curb climate change. 

It will also save time if this is instigated now.  The more countries understand the nature of the laws they will need to introduce to contribute to a global agreement (both for mitigating and adapting to climate change), the more they have a clear sense of what has worked and not worked in other countries, and the more they see the challenges of implementation, the more the legal basis for a Paris agreement in 2015 will be built.

Second, the agreement calls for legislators to strengthen national governance structures on the environment by calling on heads of government, relevant ministers and lead negotiators ahead of the UN climate negotiations in Lima in November 2014 and Paris in 2015, and requiring them to report back to their national legislatures. 

This should be undertaken both on national positions going into the negotiations, as well as the reporting back on the outcomes. Parliaments should also be the focus of national debates involving key participants to consult on the nature of the respective national responses.


The World Summit of Legislators met at a time when it is clear that international processes to put the world onto a more sustainable pathway need a serious injection of political urgency.  Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, deforestation is accelerating, and biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate.

Our collective response has been too limited.  This must change:  starting with the post-2020 climate change framework, we need a new generation of international agreement that is more robust, ambitious, inclusive, and, ultimately, more effective.

Governments cannot do it all by themselves and other actors must now enter the international arena to ensure the level of ambition, and that the underpinning architecture of the agreement, is consistent with the globally agreed target of only 2 degrees temperature rise.

A compelling way to achieve this is a greater focus on national legislation, specifically requirements to put into domestic laws, within a given timeframe, commitments made in international processes. 

Domestic legislation is more durable than a commitment made at an international forum.  For instance, in most, if not all, countries there is stronger compliance for domestic laws than for international commitments because non-compliance with domestic legislation opens up governments to legal challenge.

This has clear implications for the way international processes are constructed and, with a more sophisticated approach to the negotiations, there is an opportunity for a new generation of international agreement to emerge from Paris that is built on the solid foundations of national legislation. 

This is not a call for yet another group to be at the negotiating table.  It is a call for recognition that, for a new generation of UN agreement to succeed, it is imperative to engage the constituency that has the legitimacy and authority to create the necessary national governance structures. 

GLOBE International, a network of cross-party legislators from more than 80 countries, has demonstrated that systematic engagement with lawmakers can deliver astonishing results. 


GLOBE’s policy processes on climate change, forests and natural capital accounting have given legislators platforms to share best practice, build common understanding, and provide technical support to help draft and pass laws.

This has helped result in comprehensive new climate legislation in Mexico, South Korea and Micronesia, and is contributing to development of laws in numerous countries including China, Colombia, India, Nigeria, Peru and the Philippines.  If scaled up, this type of engagement could deliver game-changing results.

The benefits of fully engaging legislators do not stop at the legislation itself.  Well informed lawmakers are better-placed to effectively oversee implementation of national legislation, and strengthening the chances of meeting commitments made in international forums.

Given GLOBE's success, it’s surely time for the international community to recognise the importance of legislators, and national laws, in climate negotiations.  To that end, our two-fold recommendations for the new international climate agreement could have an enormous impact on the effectiveness of the agreement.

First, any agreement should include a requirement that all countries must put into national laws their commitments within a fixed period (for example, 24 months) of the agreement being reached in Paris in 2015. 

Second, any agreement should require that key legislators be part of the official country delegations to the annual UN negotiations, or create a special new category of accreditation for lawmakers to provide access to negotiations to enable them to better fulfil their scrutiny and governance responsibilities.

The time is ripe for a new generation of international agreements that harness the power of national lawmakers.  If legislators are properly engaged, rather than side-lined, they can help create the foundation for genuine sustainable development, and secure prosperity for the people they represent.

Terry Townshend is director of policy at Globe International; Rafael Aybar Jimenez is director of Globe International’s Natural Capital Initiative and director for Globe Europe, and Marlene Grundstrom is director of Globe International’s Forest Legislation Initiative.