Prospects for a Climate Treaty

Ken Anderson’s post a while back expressed pessimism for classic collective-action reasons:

Well, I do not understand how this Copenhagen conference manages to overcome the collective action failure problems that have been encountered in Kyoto and every other exercise in this area.  Extremely diffuse damage from a multitude of players, now and into the future; diffuse set of actors who must act in a coordinated way; individual states being tasked to take sacrificial actions that in the short and medium term at least are bad for their individual economies and their voting citizens; consistent record of failures not just in the nature of the promises made, but in their non-fulfillment even as they stand … on what grounds does anyone plausibly think that Copenhagen might produce a different outcome?

Noah Sachs replies:

Anderson is too pessimistic.  After all, over 180 countries have already agreed to two prior climate treaties (The UN Framework Convention in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997), as well detailed rules for implementation (Marrakech Accords in 2001), all of which are currently being implemented.  The UN Framework Convention remains the organizing document for continued international efforts to address climate change, and the majority of industrialized parties to Kyoto are expected to comply with their Kyoto commitments by the end of the first commitment period, in 2012 (with some notable exceptions, such as Canada).  The EU-15 are on track to exceed their Kyoto commitments by 2012.   Reports of the death of Kyoto are greatly exaggerated.

This was news to me.  The most recent scholarly work I am aware of indicates that only four of the EU-15 are on track to meet their Kyoto commitments.  The document cited by Sachs assumes that the EU countries will take actions in the future to reduce GHG emissions beyond those they have already taken (what it calls “additional” actions, as opposed to the “existing actions,” which are plainly insufficient).  Maybe, maybe not.  We will see.  As for his other points, note that the UN Framework Convention imposed virtually no obligation on anyone (aside from collecting information and attending conferences); the vast majority of the 180+ members of Kyoto have no obligations at all (except to accept free assistance); most of the remaining Annex I nations are also not in compliance; most of the nations actually in compliance owe their good fortune in this respect to their bad fortune in another respect—economic collapse; and the obligations for the Annex I nations were not onerous in the first place (in part because of the EU bubble which allows EU countries to benefit from the fact that the UK and Germany were reducing GHG emissions for unrelated reasons).

Sachs continues (with my interpolations in brackets):

So why would any country agree to, let alone comply with, obligations that impose near-term national costs but bring longer-term benefits to the globe as a whole?  Let me count the ways:

Self-interest in avoiding drought, sea-level rise, and hundred-degree summers

[This restates Ken’s premise—that states have an interest in mitigating climate change—and does not address his concerns about the collective action problem, which assumes that states will act in their self-interest.]

A recognition that this particular prisoners dilemma calls for global cooperation rather than defection, coupled with the recognition that emissions monitoring can detect violators.

[True for all prisoner’s dilemmas.  Emissions monitoring is an inexact technology, to say the least.  How are we to monitor emissions in China?]
A recognition of the historic responsibility of industrialized nations for the underlying problem

[This particular view, widespread in developing countries but held only in parts of the elites in industrialized countries, stands in the way of a successful treaty because industrialized nations have no interest in paying for their past harms, only an interest in avoiding future harms.]

Domestic political pressure not to tank a climate deal

[… And domestic political pressure to tank a climate deal.]

Reputational costs for major emitting countries for tanking a climate deal

[Not clear that there are any.]

A recognition that a national commitment to energy efficiency and a low-carbon economy benefits national security and international competitiveness.

[It can’t be the case that everyone’s competitiveness will be increased!  They are competing against each other, after all.]

The opportunity to participate in lucrative global carbon trading markets as a party to a post-Kyoto treaty.

[And the loss of the opportunity to participate in even more lucrative fossil fuels markets.]

Translation of commitments made internationally into binding domestic legislation, as occurred in the EU.

[Which can be overturned, or not enacted in the first place.]

The collective action problem is not a law of nature; a treaty is not impossible.  But it needs to be recognized that a climate treaty that actually mitigates climate change would be an unprecedented development in international law.  It would be the most costly, intrusive, and complex treaty ever ratified—requiring most states to incur heavy short-term economic losses, to cooperate in a complex n-player PD, to submit to intrusive, sovereignty-offending monitoring, and to tolerate the corrupting effect of billions of dollars of emission permits that will wash over developing nations with weak legal systems.  And it will require substantial payoffs to developing nations—including geopolitical rivals like China—that rich countries have never been able to bring themselves to accomplish in the past.  In fact, right now climate negotiations are all about who will pay how much to whom.  Poor countries want $200 billion per year  (and don’t call it “aid”!), far more than rich countries are willing to pay.  Some wise government officials in Europe have had the happy thought that the rich countries could simply divert the money from their existing aid budgets, which would of course benefit poor countries not at all.

Over the next few years, look for a weak treaty with lots of holes and safety valves; that will do a little for climate change mitigation but not nearly enough; that will hand over some pennies to developing countries; that will result in partial but not full compliance; that will generate enormous, legitimacy-threatening corruption in developing countries.

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