International Agreements and Cooperation Design Considerations: Emissions Targets

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Setting ambitious but achievable carbon emission targets is one of the central problems of any international climate agreement.  If the target is too bold, many countries will simply opt out or else fail to meet their targets when the time comes.  This potentially has a delegitimizing effect, since a treaty that is infeasible can taint the reputation of the entire enterprise.  On the other hand, an agreement with weak emission targets will not accomplish its environmental goals.  Finding the proper balance is thus the key issue.

Similarly, the level at which emission targets are set is potentially significant.  Should there be one global target?  Should nations each receive targets tailored to their current situation (as the Kyoto Protocol has done)?  Should targets be set for regions instead?  Or for individual citizens?  Should all nations, rich and poor, have targets?  Or in a different mindset, should targets be applied to industries (especially significant emitters) rather than geographically?  The scope and ambition of emission targets both influences and is a reflection of economic, political, and philosophical conflicts.

The matrix of potentially relevant factors is vast.  Countries differ widely in population, gross domestic product, and technological capability.  To what extent should emission targets account for these differences?  To which metric(s) would targets be keyed?

Other significant issues in the emission target context include (1) competitiveness concerns, and how to cope with self-interested strategic behavior on the part of countries and industries attempting to improve their economic prospects at the expense of their rivals; (2) how to prevent carbon leakage from undermining firm targets; and (3) how uncertainty (concerning climate sensitivity and the success of various policy instruments) influences how targets are set.