International Agreements and Cooperation Design Considerations: Participation

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A key challenge in international climate negotiations is how to achieve widespread support (especially from significant emitters) without diluting the environmental ambitions of the agreement to the point that it is ineffectual.  Participation is heavily (perhaps entirely) influenced by the self-interest and negotiating strength of individual countries.  Bargaining positions are determined by economic prowess, population, geography, vulnerability to climate change, and an assortment of other factors.  Given the absence of a supranational enforcement mechanism, perceptions of national self-interest appear to be the guiding force behind participation decisions; countries participate in international agreements only to the extent that their politicians and decision-makers expect that it will make the country as a whole better off.  However, how to measure the ‘benefits’ of a climate agreement is inherently uncertain, and must take into account reputational factors.

It is also sometimes argued that full participation in the international context is practically impossible, and so it might be more appropriate to focus on regional or other smaller (and perhaps more manageable) agreements in order to make at least some progress.  Smaller agreements between fewer and possibly more comparable parties (either economically, culturally, or otherwise) are potential replacements for a single global agreement, and ideally just as effective.  Insofar as regional agreements can be networked to each other eventually, even if loosely, they might be a feasible alternative (or complement) to a single global agreement.

Another issue in the international context is the participation of non-state actors.  Voluntary commitments by firms, NGOs, and other groups (perhaps even by states or provinces within a nation-state) have played an increasingly visible role in climate negotiations recently.

The negotiations within which participation decisions occur focus on (1) the historical and current contribution to global emissions of individual countries; (2) moral aspects, and especially a desire for intergenerational equity; (3) distributional equity between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor people within countries; (4) the role of leadership, and the extent to which certain especially ambitious or influential countries can frame and drive the international debate (by setting the agenda and using economic power or other forms of national strength to coerce participation by fellow nations); and (5) the extent to which minimum participation clauses and other mechanisms can be effective tools in overcoming holdout and free rider problems.