Multilateral Environmental Agreements are legally binding instruments that are of a wider geographic scope than bilateral agreements between two states.
More than 300 MEAs have been created in recent years to address challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, hazardous waste, persistent organic pollutants and dangerous pesticides.
Some are regional, such as those set up by the European Union members states or the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations.
Others are created under the auspices of the United Nations and include nearly 200 nations.
MEAs can include treaties, conventions, protocols, and other instruments, which vary greatly in their scope and significance.
Some, such as the Montreal Protocol which controls the use of substances that harm the ozone layer are seen as great successes. Others have failed to address their respective environmental challenges in a substantive way.
MEAs are negotiated between states and this can take many years. Under the United Nations system, for instance, each country has an equal voice and agreements can only be reached if all countries reach a consensus.
As countries vary in their capacity to engage in negotiations, they tend to form blocs with common positions, such as the Africa Group or the Alliance of Small Island States, which team up during negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Once an MEA text is finalised and adopted countries can choose whether or not to become party to the agreement. They may sign the agreement but to have any real effect they must go further and ratify it.
To ratify an MEA, governments will usually need to have the ratification approved by their national legislature.
Governments will often need to change their national laws to meet the MEA’s requirements, and this can happen before or after they ratify the MEA.
An MEA usually enters into force after a predetermined number of parties have ratified it, and it then only applies to those nations that have ratified it.
States can also accede to an MEA, which means they become party to it after it has already entered into force and are then also bound by its rules.
Even after an MEA enters into force, parties continue to meet to negotiate the MEA’s further development and implementation.
This can involve negotiating new protocols under a convention to enhance its effectiveness, or to respond to new scientific information about environmental threats.
Typical storylines for journalists reporting on MEAs include coverage of the negotiations themselves and reporting on the implementation of what parties have agreed to do.
A good source of information on MEAs and their implementation is the MEA Bulletin, produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
IISD also manages MEA-L, an email based discussion group for policymakers, nongovernmental organisations, journalists and others who are interested in MEAs.
Journalists can also subscribe via email to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (another IISD product), which provides daily coverage of each negotiating session for the major MEAs.
The bulletin is neutral in tone and highly authoritative as its writers can sit in on the negotiations while media cannot. It is produced in English, French and Spanish.
In addition to the negotiators, other major sources for journalists are civil society organisations and the private sector, as both attempt to influence any negotiations through their lobbying tactics and are present in large numbers at MEA meetings.
For some of the major MEAs, there are large alliances of hundreds of civil society organisations that have joined forces to develop a common advocacy position.
For more background, the UN Environment Programme has produced a training manual for African journalists with a section on MEAs that is relevant to reporters worldwide.
Journalists can use the date an MEA was adopted or entered into forces as news pegs for stories about the environmental challenges the MEA aims to address.
For additional reporting tips see the Toolkit pages for specific MEAs, listed below.
For case studies see the Toolkit pages for specific MEAs, listed below.
LINKS TO OTHER TOOLKIT PAGES
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
UN Convention on Biological Diversity