Brief history of negotiations with links to agreements: UN.org
Historic: 1992 UNFCCC (“The Convention”)
After the Copenhagen conference confirmed the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, that approach fell into disrepute and was labeled the top-down approach. Yet the forces that drove it have remained so strong that plan for the 2015 Paris conference is use the same approach, applied to many commitments at once and to a more disparate set of participants, and rename it the bottom-up approach.
But the approach still embodies the same dilemma and the prisoners will be condemned to repeat the history they have forgotten.
The root of the dilemma is, of course, the fact that emissions by any one country mainly affect others. Were this not true, there would be no need for the UN conferences, as the climate problem would be no different from other local pollution problems. Consequently, this spillover effect, or “externality,” is the reason for negotiations and the source of the negotiating dilemma.
The climate externality encourages countries to free ride on each other’s efforts. And so game theory predicts that all will call for maximum ambition by all, but will themselves do very little. Just as predicted, the negotiating literature is packed with calls for ambition while most countries do almost nothing.
With multiple prisoners, the game is called the public goods game, and it has been a topic of economic analysis for a century. In the last forty years, it has also been subject of innumerable experiments. Unfortunately, although the nature of the climate dilemma is pointed out, or at least referred to, at the beginning of most climate policy papers, the UN documents concerning negotiations, pay little if any attention to the problem, and as far as we can see, shows absolutely no awareness of past theoretical or experimental results.
As a consequence, the dynamic that the Paris agreement depends on for its success, is one that has been disconfirmed by essentially every experiment that tested it, include the Kyoto experiment itself.
Section IX, of the “draft negotiating text of the 2015 agreement” describes the “Cycle of commitments.” These are to be “time-bound” and “renewed in a cycle.” “The purpose of this cycle is to enable an upward spiral of ambition over time.” But in experiments, and under the Kyoto agreement, ambition starts out moderately high and declines. So what is the supposed source of the upward spiral of ambition? It is “a mechanism to periodically review commitments.”
The idea is that scrutinizing changes in science and a countries “capacities.” Will cause it to raise its commitments. But when Kyoto participants reviewed their policies, they apparently looked at more than science, and the results were dismal enough that the Paris negotiators hold it as the failure they most seek to avoid. The same things happens time and again in the laboratory, where the review process is most transparent due to the simplicity of the setting. Apparently, what participants discover is that some other players have not been as ambitious as they were and are profiting at their expense. That realization does not lead to an upward spiral of ambition.
In short, for a public goods game with significant externalities, a cycle of pledge and review most often leads rather quickly to a nearly complete collapse of ambition. If the Paris negotiators, were aware of these results and had proposed some reason that the Paris agreement might escape the same fate, perhaps their upward optimism would seem less frightening.
Comparing Kyoto to Paris
After nearly two years of inventive proposals, the Kyoto negotiators could find no formula to agree on for allocating emission reductions. Finally, Chairman Estrada drew up his own list of targets, based on pledges and negotiating positions, and “invited Annex I Parties to submit their revised, final numbers to the podium.” They submitted whatever they wanted and “these numbers were simply inserted … into the blank draft annex B” (XX).
During these protracted negotiations, there was much reviewing of pledges, and of course, at the end of the first pledge cycle there was more reviewing. But did the Kyoto negotiations “respect countries’ national prerogative to choose their domestic climate policies,” as the Paris agreement likely will? They could an did choose different abatement percentages (completely opting out in some cases), but they could not choose to commit renewables or afforestation. But this restriction only made review and comparison much more transparent—a key goal of the Paris agreement.