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Environmental Multilateralism and Small States

Resolving global challenges requires global cooperation and effective multilateral institutions. Five decades after establishing the contemporary multilateral system for environmental governance, and despite the increasing number of institutions and commitments involved, the global community is facing even more environmental challenges. The 2022 UN report A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future by the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism reaffirmed the importance of rebuilding trust in multilateralism and elevating the environment within the multilateral system. Global institutions that foster and amplify collaboration and integrated responses on environmental challenges are indeed more necessary than ever. 

 

The conventional theory of change for enhancing global environmental governance posits that a few large states, responsible for a significant share of global consumption, emissions, and environmental harm must take the lead in establishing multilateral initiatives that other nations follow. Our theory of change, on the other hand, focuses on the leadership of small states, those “who punch above their weight.”  

 

Small states often face threats to their infrastructure, ecosystems, freshwater resources, and community livelihoods from climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and habitat fragmentation. They encounter difficulties in accessing financing and technical assistance for environmental initiatives and limited financial and technical capacities can hinder their ability to implement effective environmental policies, undertake mitigation and adaptation measures, and participate in international environmental negotiations.  

 

Small states, however, have a significant impact on global environmental governance through proactive engagement, innovative policies, and effective diplomacy. For example, in 1988, Malta foresaw the dangers of anthropogenic climate change and brought it to the attention of the UN General Assembly paving the way for the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Small Island Developing States such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands have been instrumental in climate negotiations and articulating the 1.5C global goal. And Rwanda and Peru have led the process toward a global treaty on regulating plastic pollution.  

 

Small states have gained soft power, influence, and diplomatic leverage by actively engaging in multilateralism and moving forward in achieving global environmental goals without directly competing with larger states. Their consistent engagement in multilateral efforts is essential for achieving equitable and effective governance and sustaining the necessary capacity, connectivity, and credibility to advance multilateral environmental action. When acting together, small states hold significant influence and power.  

 

Goals and Objectives 

Implementation of the multiple Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) requires technical expertise, infrastructure, data collection, monitoring capabilities, and institutional capacity. Adequate funding and technical assistance are crucial for effective implementation. Since small states face resource constraints, both in terms of human and financial resources, they often assume that their performance is inadequate. 

 

Through the Environmental Conventions Index hosted at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, we have evidence that several small states implement (relatively well) their commitments under the MEAs. Many, however, are not aware of their performance. Knowledge of one’s performance across the various MEAs will be critical to developing standing and influence in international negotiations, to developing the ability to shape the agenda, and to requesting the necessary support. 

 

This project will create a Knowledge Network to facilitate knowledge generation and exchange about small-state institutions, processes, and performance on multilateral environmental agreements. The creation of new knowledge and new networks will empower small states to maximize their ideational resources, take initiative, and exercise leadership both individually and collectively. The project will also serve as a platform for formulating a clear vision and a common agenda for the 2024 UN Environment Assembly and the 2024 Summit of the Future, contributing to the development of a compelling environmental multilateralism agenda. 

 

Through consistent interactions in an open environment, we seek to facilitate connection among states that would improve both ability and ambition. To this end, we aim to: 

  1. Create a cadre of small state ambassadors on environmental multilateralism who can support each other to strengthen their collective role and impact in environmental negotiations and performance.  

  2. Empower small states to launch new initiatives globally and improve implementation of environmental commitments nationally. 

  3. Enhance South-South cooperation among small states. 

 

Creating opportunities to connect with similar states will strengthen the voice and influence of small states in multilateral environmental negotiations. For example, AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States formed in 1990, enabled South-South cooperation on the environment by creating joint positions and proposals, advocating for these states’ specific needs in global climate governance, and amplifying their concerns at a global level. Similarly, we seek to foster solidarity and cooperation as well as the sharing of knowledge to enable small states to address common environmental challenges collectively. 

 

Outputs and Outcomes 

By providing a platform for diverse perspectives and experiences, the Knowledge Network will enable small states to generate new knowledge and networks, which can help them maximize their ideational resources and exercise leadership both individually and collectively. We will collate performance data on the fulfillment of global environmental goals and create a policy space to discuss and develop capacity. We will document leadership stories and conduct training programs to provide guidance to governments in the preparations for and during negotiations. By delivering knowledge on the strengths and challenges of current mechanisms for implementing global conventions, the Knowledge Network will improve the future negotiation, drafting, and design of MEAs and other global policy initiatives. This process will lead to the development of targeted capacity-building mechanisms at national and convention levels and to the exchange of best practices that promote efficiency and enhance coordination among conventions.  

 

We will convene officials from national governments and international organizations to discuss the governance experience of implementing environmental conventions. Through connecting countries with similar capacities, performance, or ambition, the Knowledge Network aims to create policy recommendations and promote dialogue on how to improve strategic approaches to achieving environmental goals countries have committed to. 

 

Ultimately, the Knowledge Network will assist with the identification of successes and gaps in national performance and facilitate the exchange of best practices as states compare performance and share experiences and lessons learned. It will facilitate the development and acquisition of skills and resources to overcome challenges small states face in global environmental governance. It will allow states to voice their concerns and articulate the key issues that require multilateral action. The project will enable connections among states, academia, and other stakeholders, building mutually beneficial relationships and fostering collaboration on global environmental issues. 

 

Methodology 

The Knowledge Network will build on the Environmental Conventions Index (ECI), an implementation assessment tool which demonstrates in a comparative manner and over time the extent to which countries meet global environmental obligations. The index has been successfully deployed in several government training programs conducted in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. Specifically, it has been instrumental in informing country case studies on implementing MEAs and has served as the foundation for a series of online sub-regional trainings. 

 

Knowledge about the extent of a country’s performance across a range of indicators is essential for attaining effective environmental multilateralism as it empowers countries and communities to assume leadership. The creation of a knowledge network and enhancement of the Index aims to build trust and “bridge the gap” among academia, government policymakers, and environmental multilateralism stakeholders in countries with potential and commitment to lead.  

 

Participants and modality 

This project is a two-year initiative by the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in partnership with the Rwanda Environment Management Authority and supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Knowledge Network will consist of national officers from about 12 to 15 small states who will join a series of virtual and in-person convenings to discuss their country’s priorities and craft a collective agenda for environmental multilateralism.  

 

Contact Information 
Professor Maria Ivanova, Director, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs 

Northeastern University / m.ivanova@northeastern.edu    

 

Olga Skaredina, Project Manager, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University / skaredina.o@northeastern.edu 

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