How climate law can help prevent the next pandemic

The two greatest crises facing humanity — pandemics and climate change — are intertwined. Climate change increases many health risks, including the possibility that a new virus will spread and cause dangerous outbreaks. But although efforts to control climate change are supported by a network of international treaties and legal treaties, the tools are not yet fully applied to global health. Those gathering for the World Health Assembly in Geneva later this month should push to change this.

I am a lawyer and researcher specializing in pandemic governance and climate change. I have seen international lawmaking generate political commitments such as national emission targets. Since 1992, a network of treaties, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have established protocols for building consensus. Progress is slow, but real.

This is exemplified by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Well, that’s not enough: countries set their own non-binding targets. Nonetheless, the president and prime minister have made promises to reduce emissions and are now publicly accountable. Countries also explicitly recognize that climate change (such as extreme heat, droughts and floods) can violate the right to health by contributing to crop failures, infectious diseases and other disasters. The treaty captured the political momentum to get countries to make important commitments that increased over time.

The pandemic does not have an equal scaffold to support complex global cooperation. The International Health Regulations, which were last reworked in 2005, have significant gaps. Although legally binding, enforcement is weak and largely ignored. The global health community, often reluctant to appear ‘political’, has underestimated the potential of international law to establish norms of compliance.

In 2021, World Health Organization member states establish a formal negotiating body to explore international law for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. While seeking input last month, I made two points. First, pandemic legislation must involve the country’s existing legal obligations by acknowledging how climate change will exacerbate outbreaks. Second, that pandemic agreements can be modeled on climate law to make countries transparent and accountable for achieving commitments. The specifics — virus surveillance, information sharing, and so on — are less pressing than the process, with one exception. Pandemic law must learn from the failures of climate law, and ensure that attention is paid to justice and equity across and within countries.

The UNFCCC was written to spur action. Framework conventions are treaties that set out high-level legally binding principles and obligations to support negotiations and faster adoption. This can distill political momentum into national commitments, including governance structures and processes. It also allows protocols, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement, to be refined in parallel or over time, so that negotiators can build on past progress and create detailed obligations for specific issues, such as technology transfer or fair distribution of vaccines.

The strength of the UNFCCC lies in how it builds institutions and processes to support collective action and accountability. Conferences of the parties (COPs) are the clearest example. Recall how COP26 in Glasgow last year caught the world’s attention and prompted leaders to set more ambitious goals. The COP exists to assess, clarify and reiterate obligations. Non-governmental organizations, advocacy organizations and other components of civil society use the COP to hold governments to account. Citizens can also hold governments accountable for failure to take adequate action, as has happened with climate class action lawsuits in more than 35 countries. Indeed, the fact that there are so many powerful global public health organizations can make such a mechanism even more powerful.

The key point is not to see one agreement, deal, or policy as a result — there are so many disappointments. We’ll have to see how these mechanisms work together. Financing and capacity building are key to success under the UNFCCC, Paris Agreement and COP decisions. Accountability and transparency are also important. The pandemic law should, for example, protect the rights of whistleblowers, including health workers.

Better than punitive measures, which can erode cooperation, are mechanisms to encourage compliance. For example, the compliance committee established by the Paris Agreement helps countries to make progress on emission targets by identifying non-compliance, providing expert guidance on requirements and deadlines, and enforcing plans.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produces regular reports that provide a reliable update and synthesis of the available evidence. Similarly, an effective pandemic agreement will establish an independent process for gathering and synthesizing scientific evidence for preparedness and response. It will guide investments in capacity building and technology development, and will inform policies to reduce outbreaks.

International climate law is far from sufficient: countries have not cut emissions enough to avoid a hotter and sicker world. But they have enabled climate action. Any pandemic agreement will not be perfect. But taking difficult, imperfect steps is the only way to build momentum.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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