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04.05.2022 · Wolfgang Obergassel

No Longer Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma? Theoretical Foundations of the IPCC WG3 Chapter on International Cooperation

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Historically, most discussions about international climate policy, including in the IPCC assessment reports, were based on seeing climate change mitigation as a collective action problem. In this perspective, countries have an incentive to “free ride” on the efforts of others, as most benefits of mitigation actions accrue globally rather than within the borders of those taking action. Much of the literature therefore focused on how international institutions can be designed to overcome this free rider problem.

I personally am more of the view put forward e.g. by Aklin and Mildenberger in their article “Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma”, namely that it has mostly been distributional conflicts between winners and losers of mitigation action rather than free riding concerns that have stymied climate policy for decades. The most instructive example is maybe the behaviour of Exxon and other oil companies. Exxon knew about climate change earlier than many others. They undertook their own research in the 1970s and 1980s which concluded that CO2 emissions were causing climate change and that climate change would potentially have dire consequences. Instead of publicising their results and changing their business, they started funding so-called climate sceptics and lobbied to slow down climate policy. For instance, Exxon lobbied China not to accept emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol – and lobbied the US Congress not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because China was not accepting emission targets (source in German). 

The new IPCC report deploys not one but four different analytical frameworks in its discussion of international cooperation: the traditionally dominant global commons framing, ethical approaches, analysis of transitions and transformations, and the psychology and politics of changing course. These different framings lead to different indicators of success. The global commons perspective focuses on levels of GHG emissions and the enforcement capacity of international agreements to deal with free riding. The transitions framing, by contrast, sees emission levels as the end result of a large number of transformative processes. It focuses on analysing the progress in individual transformations and on how international cooperation can stimulate transformation by stimulating innovation and diffusion of new technologies. Approaches centred on equity and development focus on aligning climate policy with efforts to shift development pathways towards improved quality of life and greater sustainability.

Most interesting to me was the finding of the IPCC that assessments of the Paris Agreement largely depend on which of these different analytical frameworks the authors use. Criticism of the Paris Agreement comes mostly from a collective action perspective and highlights its lack of legal bindingness and enforcement. Political and transition framings, by contrast, highlight that the Agreement has put in place normative expectations and mechanisms to strengthen ambition and implementation over time. 

Critics of the Paris Agreement question whether such strengthening will happen within the narrow window of opportunity that still exists to prevent dangerous climate change. But then one also needs to answer the question of how the Paris Agreement could have been more stringent, given that the previous two decades of trying to negotiate a global, legally binding, and enforceable treaty had been fruitless. And the Paris Agreement is having an impact. Before the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the Climate Action Tracker estimated that with current policies and measures the world was on a pathway towards global warming of between 3.5 and 4°C. Nowadays, current policies are on track towards 2.7°C. With the achievement of all pledges and long-term targets, 2.1°C is within reach and for the first time, the most optimistic scenario even indicates that global warming could be halted below 2°C. The IEA comes to similar results.

Obviously, whether all pledges will indeed be achieved is a big if. How implementation at all levels can be strengthened is the key research question of NDC ASPECTS. Results on how global governance can better support climate action in the four target sectors of the project are due in October.

Wolfgang Obergassel is the Co-Head of Research Unit Global Climate Governance at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy (profile page)