The Paris Agreement relies on voluntary and therefore weak commitments. But contrary to popular belief, if some countries “free-ride”, this does not undermine the commitment of others, writes Thomas Bernauer.

If you stick to the rules, so will I – but if you break them, I might as well too. In many areas of society we behave according to the principle of reciprocity, a mutual process of give and take. Reciprocity also plays an important role on the international stage.

Take for example trade policy: countries usually only commit themselves to opening up their markets if the other countries involved do the same. However, there are also areas in which countries behave predominantly in a non-reciprocal manner. One example is the UN Convention against Torture. Almost no country would leave or violate this convention and reintroduce torture simply because other countries are not abiding by it.

How reciprocal is international climate policy?

The prevailing opinion is that climate policy follows the model of trade policy rather than that of the Convention on Torture. Many statements made by politicians imply this, also in Switzerland. Typically, their arguments are as follows: we shouldn’t act as long as others are not. After all, reducing CO2 is expensive. If other countries do not follow suit, we will have a competitive disadvantage, jobs will be lost and global climate targets will still not be achieved.

It is an undisputed fact that many countries are doing too little to mitigate climate change. But does this really diminish support for climate policy in other countries? Does it weaken the political will of citizens and governments to reduce emissions? If international climate policy were genuinely based on reciprocity, the prospects for the Paris Agreement – which is largely based on voluntary and hitherto inadequate commitments by member states – would be poor.

Protecting it – even when others are not

We have investigated this problem using representative surveys and decision experiments with several thousand participants in the US and China. These two countries account for about half of global emissions.

The main findings are surprising given the frequently voiced reciprocity arguments in climate policy: citizens’ attitudes towards international climate policy predominantly adhere to non-reciprocal patterns. Their opinions do differ on whether and to what extent their own country should engage in international efforts to reduce emissions. However, these opinions are rarely influenced by what other countries are doing.

Challenging the “free-rider” argument

What can we conclude from these results? From the perspective of climate protection, it is encouraging to note that the design of the Paris Agreement is not flawed when it comes to reciprocity and free-riding. The agreement may not impose few concrete obligations on governments to reduce emissions, thus, in principle, allowing countries to do nothing or too little for climate protection without penalty – nevertheless, these free-riders do not undermine public support for ambitious climate policies in more climate-friendly nations.

Even the rhetoric of climate protection sceptics, who try to slow down climate protection in their own country by pointing to free-riding by other states, seems to have little traction with the general population. This implies that, despite the reciprocity and free-riding rhetoric, the communication efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many other institutions are having an impact. Most people consider it both appropriate and important to reduce emissions in their own country – regardless of other countries’ behaviour.

The generational challenge remains

Despite this, even if the cumbersome and sluggish pace of global climate cooperation has less of a negative impact on national climate policy than expected, reducing emissions to almost zero in the coming decades remains a Herculean task. Many people are still not prepared to accept the costs and sacrifices associated with protecting future generations from climate damage at home and abroad – no matter what other countries are doing.

More information:
Liam F. Beiser-McGrath et al. Commitment failures are unlikely to undermine public support for the Paris agreement, Nature Climate Change (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0414-z

Liam F. McGrath et al. How strong is public support for unilateral climate policy and what drives it?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (2017). DOI: 10.1002/wcc.484

Thomas Bernauer et al. Unilateral or Reciprocal Climate Policy? Experimental Evidence from China, Politics and Governance (2016). DOI: 10.17645/pag.v4i3.650

The Paris Agreement relies on voluntary and therefore weak commitments. But contrary to popular belief, if some countries “free-ride”, this does not undermine the commitment of others, writes Thomas Bernauer.

If you stick to the rules, so will I – but if you break them, I might as well too. In many areas of society we behave according to the principle of reciprocity, a mutual process of give and take. Reciprocity also plays an important role on the international stage.

Take for example trade policy: countries usually only commit themselves to opening up their markets if the other countries involved do the same. However, there are also areas in which countries behave predominantly in a non-reciprocal manner. One example is the UN Convention against Torture. Almost no country would leave or violate this convention and reintroduce torture simply because other countries are not abiding by it.

How reciprocal is international climate policy?

The prevailing opinion is that climate policy follows the model of trade policy rather than that of the Convention on Torture. Many statements made by politicians imply this, also in Switzerland. Typically, their arguments are as follows: we shouldn’t act as long as others are not. After all, reducing CO2 is expensive. If other countries do not follow suit, we will have a competitive disadvantage, jobs will be lost and global climate targets will still not be achieved.

It is an undisputed fact that many countries are doing too little to mitigate climate change. But does this really diminish support for climate policy in other countries? Does it weaken the political will of citizens and governments to reduce emissions? If international climate policy were genuinely based on reciprocity, the prospects for the Paris Agreement – which is largely based on voluntary and hitherto inadequate commitments by member states – would be poor.

Protecting it – even when others are not

We have investigated this problem using representative surveys and decision experiments with several thousand participants in the US and China. These two countries account for about half of global emissions.

The main findings are surprising given the frequently voiced reciprocity arguments in climate policy: citizens’ attitudes towards international climate policy predominantly adhere to non-reciprocal patterns. Their opinions do differ on whether and to what extent their own country should engage in international efforts to reduce emissions. However, these opinions are rarely influenced by what other countries are doing.

Challenging the “free-rider” argument

What can we conclude from these results? From the perspective of climate protection, it is encouraging to note that the design of the Paris Agreement is not flawed when it comes to reciprocity and free-riding. The agreement may not impose few concrete obligations on governments to reduce emissions, thus, in principle, allowing countries to do nothing or too little for climate protection without penalty – nevertheless, these free-riders do not undermine public support for ambitious climate policies in more climate-friendly nations.

Even the rhetoric of climate protection sceptics, who try to slow down climate protection in their own country by pointing to free-riding by other states, seems to have little traction with the general population. This implies that, despite the reciprocity and free-riding rhetoric, the communication efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many other institutions are having an impact. Most people consider it both appropriate and important to reduce emissions in their own country – regardless of other countries’ behaviour.

The generational challenge remains

Despite this, even if the cumbersome and sluggish pace of global climate cooperation has less of a negative impact on national climate policy than expected, reducing emissions to almost zero in the coming decades remains a Herculean task. Many people are still not prepared to accept the costs and sacrifices associated with protecting future generations from climate damage at home and abroad – no matter what other countries are doing.

More information:
Liam F. Beiser-McGrath et al. Commitment failures are unlikely to undermine public support for the Paris agreement, Nature Climate Change (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0414-z

Liam F. McGrath et al. How strong is public support for unilateral climate policy and what drives it?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (2017). DOI: 10.1002/wcc.484

Thomas Bernauer et al. Unilateral or Reciprocal Climate Policy? Experimental Evidence from China, Politics and Governance (2016). DOI: 10.17645/pag.v4i3.650

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