International Agreements and Cooperation Theory: Generally

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International agreements on climate change represent the broadest and most ambitious step in the global effort to curb carbon emissions.  The main international agreement on climate change to date is the Kyoto Protocol, a product of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

International cooperation is difficult in most areas, but is perhaps especially difficult in the realm of climate change, a problem that is truly global in nature.  The incentive to free ride on the carbon-reduction efforts of others is acute, and is one of the main obstacles to any legitimate international agreement.  To combat the free riding problem, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are essential, but how to design such mechanisms is a challenging matter.

Another topic of intense dispute is the imbalance of historical and current emissions between rich and poor countries.  These often vast differences strongly influence the negotiating positions of national governments in the international realm, with large emitters like the United States being forced to defend their supposed disproportionate contribution to the problem from charges of excess consumption by poor countries in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.  In this rapidly developing space, the emergence of China—a historically poor country since the Industrial Revolution—as the world’s largest carbon emitter has warped the debate over the proper roles and responsibilities of rich and poor.

Issues concerning the theory and effectiveness of international agreements include: (1) the role of national governments and the interaction of environmental problems with national security and other priorities; (2) the influence of national forms of governance—specifically, the role of democracies—in shaping and meeting climate goals; (3) transparency and accountability by third party monitors or by supranational authorities; (4) the interaction between public and private actors and the potential for partnerships between them; (5) the increasing difficultly of negotiations involving a large number of parties with asymmetrical exposure to climate dangers; (6) the relative importance of major emission-reduction commitments compared to broader participation in the treaty-making process; (7) the consequences of widespread fragmentation of negotiating parties as numerous smaller, incomplete agreements substitute for one larger, complete one; (8) the potential for smaller climate networks to be scaled up to the international level; (9) the extent to which various regulatory and market instruments are well-suited to the particular challenges of international cooperation; (10) how to ensure the stability of agreements over time; and (11) the role of uncertainty (of the science, and costs and benefits to individual nations) and its influence on negotiations.