Give and take

Symbolic picture for the article. The link opens the image in a large view.
(Illustration: Roland Hallmeier)

To stop climate change, the world must work together. Can this work?

Reducing hunger and poverty, promoting peace, combating climate change and protecting universal human rights – global challenges call for a joint effort. In short: the world needs to come together for a sustainable future. That is why the international community has agreed, within the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations, on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The aim of these goals is to pave the way for socially, ecologically and economically sustainable development.

In addition to food security, the promotion of healthy living and gender equality, and ending poverty and hunger, they also encompass goals such as sustainable and modern energy for all, sustainable economic growth and ethical work, sustainable consumption and production patterns, combating climate change, protecting human dignity and the planet as well as promoting prosperity and peace. In Goal 17, the guiding principles of the 2030 Agenda clearly highlight that international networks and cooperation are necessary for this – but can expanding global partnerships to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and change the world for the good of all actually succeed?

An autocracy as hegemonic power?

Professor Katrin Kinzelbach from the Institute of Political Science at FAU sees in the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations above all a political signal. In response to the question of whether international cooperation can contribute to shaping the world in such a way that we can live in it in a state of general well-being, she replies: ‘As far as the global challenges are concerned, there is no other option. We’re obliged to cooperate at international level.’ The SDGs are by all means an appropriate instrument, she adds, though one with a rather technocratic approach, in the context of which questions of power are probably not sufficiently asked.

She says that the global community is also investing too little in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, although it is talking about them a lot. What SDG reports on the status of sustainable development reveal time and again hardly surprises her: ‘At the end of the day, the SDGs are just non-binding declarations of intent.’ Human rights treaties, by contrast, are legally binding. A reason why climate and environmental activists have tried over many years to find a human rights dimension for the topic of sustainability. ‘In October 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations voted unanimously for a new right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Germany was in favour too – but China, India, Japan and Russia abstained,’ explains Kinzelbach.

Illustration von Männchen, die an Erde ziehen mit Tauen
(Illustration: Roland Hallmeier)

Despite being legally binding, the worldwide protection of human rights remains a contentious issue in the political domain. ‘Quite simply, autocracy as a political system is incompatible with human rights,’ says Kinzelbach. ‘The rise of authoritarian China is one of the greatest challenges facing us at international level. We’re experiencing a new era in which it’s not inconceivable that the next hegemonic power might well be an autocracy. China presents itself as a role model for leading multilateralism,’ she adds. In the realm of global climate policy, China continues to take important steps, such as ceasing to build new coal-fired power plants abroad. However, the Chinese one-party state is doing this out of hard-hitting economic interests and power politics and will never permit an independent inspection of climate targets.

Transparency is, however, important. Kinzelbach is convinced: ‘Global governance is not possible without autocracies because they de facto have agenda-setting power; at the same time, global challenges – and these include climate change – cannot be solved in an autocratic way. The biggest difference, in my view, is between autocracies and democracies, and not between the Global North and South, or East and West.’

In this context, Katrin Kinzelbach also reminds us that the United Nations Human Rights Treaty System was jointly created by a large number of countries and has steadily evolved over time. ‘China is trying, to portray universal human rights as one of the West’s neo-imperial instruments of power, although the notion of universality also has to do – quintessentially – with the attempt to overcome colonialism, something often misunderstood today,’ says Kinzelbach, an expert on human rights,

She believes that it is important to keep working on this achievement: ‘In view of the major challenges of our times, first and foremost climate change, we ought not deviate without good reason from the notion of universally applicable rights of freedom and participation. And we must learn to think in a less Eurocentric way. European politicians speak repeatedly, for example, of ‘European values’, but this particularism is the opposite of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights attempted to do and has indeed achieved.’

Often the will is lacking

Professor Christoph Safferling, Chair of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, International Criminal Law and International Law at FAU, also sees a need for action here. ‘We find ourselves in a dilemma: when it’s a matter of prosecuting crimes against humanity worldwide, with international criminal law and the International Criminal Court we in fact have a good framework in the shape of suitable norms and institutions. Experience, however, shows that the protection of human rights unfortunately doesn’t work in this respect,’ says Safferling.

‘There is a lack of political will to implement it at international level. In addition, currents have emerged in recent years that are fighting against international criminal justice,’ he points out. ‘For example, the USA under President Donald Trump flouted the International Criminal Court in The Hague on a massive scale. This even went so far that its staff was no longer allowed to enter the USA, and as a result the chief prosecutor was unable to report to the United Nations in New York.’

Although the situation has eased again slightly in this respect with the new administration in the USA, the international criminal justice system overall is still far removed from what its institutions could technically achieve. ‘In international criminal law, we’re obliged to rely on the individual nation states, which must take on the task of prosecuting international crimes. However, even some of the European Union’s member states often lack the will to prosecute human rights violations,’ says Safferling.

Added to this is a lack of political options and ideas: ‘There is no plan in place for dealing with the large number of human rights crimes, such as have taken place and are still taking place for instance in Syria, in a way that makes a positive impact on the local situation and society,’ he says. ‘Numerous court cases against Syrian or Iraqi nationals have meanwhile taken place in Germany that, although they were convicted here, have not led to any improvements whatsoever in their home countries.’

“It is a dilemma that while there is often quick agreement on formula compromises at the international level when it comes to concrete implementation and design, there is all too much reliance on the national framework.”

Another part of the world, the same problem: in former Yugoslavia, the international community intervened and launched criminal proceedings; those behind organising the genocide were indicted and given long prison sentences. ‘From the perspective of international criminal law, at first glance everything seemed to work well. But on the ground, society is still on very thin ice. There is considerable danger of conflicts erupting,’ says Safferling. ‘As regards sustainability, the question of success already arises on that score because if convicted war criminals are worshipped like heroes after their release, the signal supposed to have been sent was evidently not received.’

The solutions and approaches discussed in academia for giving international criminal justice greater clout focus above all on the issue of human resources. ‘We need highly dedicated individuals who are persistent and assertive,’ says Safferling. ‘It’s the duty of the UN Member States to make personnel decisions and dispatch judges. What’s more, there needs to be one indictment after the next so that they can get into a routine and do convincing work as a result.’ He refers to the situation in Germany where quality and expertise in international criminal law have improved tremendously in the last two years because higher regional courts and national security councils are inundated with corresponding cases. ‘They are obliged to deal with them and find solutions. Only in this way can we establish a type of legal practice that is sustainable.’

General goals instead of targeted implementation

For political scientist Professor Roland Sturm, Chair of German and Comparative Politics, European Studies and Political Economy at FAU, the limits of international cooperation on the path towards a more sustainable world are quite obvious in other respects as well. He especially highlights climate change as well as environmental and energy policy.

‘We need to bear in mind that we do not have a world government and that the European Union, although it has treaties in place, is also inclined to formulate general goals and remain vague,’ he says. ‘It’s a dilemma: although there is often prompt agreement at international level on formulaic compromises, when it comes to fleshing out policies and targeted implementation people are only too happy to fall back on the respective national framework.’

For example: while France is staking its bets on the peaceful use of nuclear power to reduce CO2 emissions, and new nuclear power stations are also being built in Finland, the Czech Republic or Great Britain, Germany is opting out of this technology with the same goal. While in this country the end of the combustion engine is foreseeable, no one in Bulgaria or Romania will get rid of their diesel car because they are happy to have a car at all, says Stumm.

In other words: ‘Only in principle is there worldwide consensus on the major issues facing us. Implementation, by contrast, is an entirely different matter, and the hope of prompting emulation through exemplary behaviour is repeatedly destroyed by national interests,’ says Sturm. Options at international level are therefore limited.

Illustration Tauziehen
(Illustration: Roland Hallmeier)

‘On the one hand, it’s good, of course, that the Sustainable Development Goals are being discussed at global level at all because they would otherwise not even be on the agenda in a lot of countries,’ he says. ‘But the pioneers must not succumb to the mistaken belief that everyone will pull together, since the goals still have to be implemented at national level, and the equation is often quite simple: if there is no national need, such a goal will not be pursued further. After all, politicians want to be re-elected.’

In other words: each common challenge is met differently on the ground, depending on individual interests. Sometimes with greater, sometimes with lesser success. ‘Under Gerhard Schröder’s SPD-led government, the energy tax was introduced in this country to deter car drivers,’ explains Roland Sturm. “The tax revenue was supposed to go into pension insurance. What do we have today? An ailing pension scheme and just as many cars on the road as before. At the end of the day, all the state did was discover a new source of tax revenue for itself.’

He says that it is the lack of seriousness of such strategies which makes it impossible to get civil society on one’s side. Yet for him as a political scientist, this is precisely what counts: ‘We need advocates on the part of civil society at national level for specific issues, such as the Fridays for Future movement. However, these advocates must act within a certain framework and not lose respect, for example by using violence.’ He believes that pressure from civil society is then the best means for creating sustainability. Moreover, he continues to hope for the global community’s convergence on major global issues.

Interests decide

For political scientist Professor Stefan Fröhlich, Chair of International Politics and Political Economy at FAU, this rapprochement and coalescence are rendered all the more difficult by the fact that no longer only states exert a decisive influence on world affairs but increasingly also non-state stakeholders. ‘This development is seeing to ever greater diversity as regards notions of political order and goals. Many countries and societies perceive Western thinking and action as hubris and don’t accept our values,’ he says.

And he continues: ‘We’re living in a multipolar world with USA and China as global powers, then there is the European Union, Russia, the emerging countries of the South and East as well as non-governmental organisations, transnational interest groups, multinational companies and influential lobbyists.’ A further challenge: in the increasingly networked world of the 21st century, new dependencies are evolving as a result of large-scale infrastructure projects and geoeconomics. ‘Today the success of states and corporate entities is measured less against their military strength and political power, but instead rather derived directly from their connectivity – that is, the strength especially of their economic connections,’ says Fröhlich, ‘whereby small states with technocratic governments, such as Singapore or Switzerland, for example, can be very successful too.’

“We need idealists and a permanent work towards such a world, as already outlined by the United Nations in its founding charter, in order to work towards conditions that ensure sustainability and stability.”

In his eyes, the New Silk Road project is a prime example of this development: ‘With this project, China is laying the groundwork for a new trade network between Asia, Africa and Europe and expanding its global influence. Sustainability aspects are mostly ignored. Instead, it’s about making greater use of Chinese firms’ capacities, spheres of influence as far as Europe and about creating dependencies, for example by the Chinese government deliberately driving financially weak countries into over-indebtedness so as to be able to exert greater political pressure on them.’

That is why Fröhlich counts global agreement on a notion of security, such as was formulated by the United Nations in 1992 in ‘An Agenda for Peace’, among the main challenges of our times: ‘In it, we can already find those aspects that concern us today when we speak of a sustainable world: security threats are no longer limited to the military realm but also seen in climate change, pandemics or questions of migration and energy security.’

Idealists sought

Fröhlich predicts that the deciding factor in this nexus will be that the different notions of political order of the West, on the one hand, and of autocratic systems, first and foremost China, on the other, do not impede the solution of these urgent problems. ‘In this context, above all the rivalry between the USA and China has become the central paradigm of international relations in recent years. It shapes strategic debates equally as much as real political, military and economic dynamics.’

For Stefan Fröhlich, one thing is clear: ‘To progress towards a state of affairs that guarantees sustainability and stability, we need idealists and to work permanently on such a world, like the United Nations already outlined in its founding charter.’ And there is a need for ongoing dialogue and diplomacy at international level because there are, after all, no global laws but only agreements and rules of the game for the peaceful coexistence of the community of nations. These include the principle of non-interference, the prohibition of intervention, the recognition of state and territorial sovereignty and integrity as well as a general prohibition of the use of force.

‘Under no circumstances whatsoever must we stop agreeing on these rules of the game over and over again or ever allow the lines of communication to break down,’ says Fröhlich. Otherwise, he is convinced, there can be no sustainable future. Only through good cooperation between all stakeholders can implementation succeed.

About the author

Michael Kniess studied political science and sociology at FAU. Since his traineeship, he has been writing as a freelance journalist and author for, Welt am Sonntag and Nürnberger Zeitung, among others.

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