All you have to do is sign up

All you have to do is sign up

Ever wondered why, despite all the conferences, treaties, international agreements and other excuses to travel around the world to expensive hotels, nothing seems to get done.

Targets are set and not met, only to be reset again.

And the process of resetting requires another swag of conferences to thrash out the new agreement.

Once the convention wording is agreed upon, often, we are told, in the early hours of the morning by emotional delegates who have put their hearts, souls and grandmas pension into the negotiation, the countries sign up. 

Here are the signup rates for a baker’s dozen conventions and international agreements since 1971.

graph shoing the rate of countries signing international conventions

There are 195 countries in the world today. This total comprises 193 countries that are member states of the United Nations and 2 countries that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine.


Most countries sign up on the day—one-time offer deals that make you look bad for any hesitation. These are the steep curves on the graph like the UNFCCC, UNCCD and the CBD. Everyone in the room will notice if you skip past the table with the dude offering the fountain pen.

Some agreements are hard to make, especially if you are morally or politically compromised by what they expect. These are ok to dodge for a while or not sign up to at all—for example, the Ramsar convention on wetland or the conservation of migratory species. 

Heads of delegation smile, offer platitudes, thanks, and support for the premise of the agreement, “but we don’t have any wetlands or birds in our country”.

A quarter of countries avoid signing half the agreements, presumably not the same countries each time. Although some likely suspects do emerge as repeat non-signatories. In other words, it is acceptable to ignore a convention if needs must.

Signing up on the day and not signing up seems the opposite. But if the conventions do not achieve any results—settled science tells us that biodiversity loss is accelerating and greenhouse gas levels are increasing steadily—then both options come from the same place. 

Both responses gain kudos, the national equivalent of an ego stroke. 

Because if everyone signs these things but nothing happens, we healthy sceptics are left to conclude that the elusive ‘goodwill’ of putting disparate nations in a room together every few months for some wine and cheese is the extent of the outcomes.

Let’s hope this, plus a few trade deals on the side is enough.


Hero image from photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

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