Should the International Climate Negotiations Focus on Policies Rather Than Targets?

As a follow-up to my recent post on whether the international climate negotiations need new types of targets a colleague alerted me to David Victor’s recent book Global Warming Gridlock. His core thesis is easily summarised: International diplomacy needs to be based on what governments can credibly deliver. Governments will not commit to things where they are not sure if they can actually deliver them. And governments cannot credibly deliver emission reductions. Key emission drivers like economic and population growth are largely beyond government control. What governments do is policies. Policies are something that governments can credibly deliver. Therefore the international climate negotiations should focus on getting countries to adopt effective policies.

Achieving the necessary emission reductions will require a fundamental transformation of our energy systems. And our energy system is based on complicated infrastructures and nobody really knows what its transformation will take and what it will cost. Therefore,

“Even governments working in good faith will be in the dark about what they can really deliver.”


“Binding treaties work well only when governments know what they are willing and able to implement.”

And this is one reason why developing countries have been opposed to adopting binding emission targets. It’s not only about carbon space for development, it’s also that developing countries are even less able to control their emissions than industrialised ones. Not only do they have rapidly growing economies, they also generally have much less developed governance institutions.

“The more complicated the regulatory challenge, the more important it is to start with small, practical efforts by the few countries that matter most.”

Adherents of cap-and-trade might argue that the idea is anyway not that governments should reduce emissions. The idea is that governments should impose mandatory caps on economic actors and let the market sort out the when and where of emission reductions. But it obviously hasn’t been possible to adopt adequate caps for the last 15 years and Victor has a theory why. Is hasn’t been possible because it runs directly counter to the interests of some of the most powerful economic actors around.

“Politically viable policies to control emissions must avoid imposing high costs on politically well-organized large groups and also avoid making high costs evident to poorly organized but potentially dominant groups, such as voters. Policies that are politically viable will therefore not be identical with policies that are economically optimal, and in some cases the dispersion between the viable and the optimal will be huge. (…)

as a policy analyst, I find that outcome deeply unsettling. (…) But ideal visions for policy often clash with political realities.”

And given that the domestic political landscapes vary, the viability of political strategies also varies from country to country. Therefore,

“effective international agreements on climate change will need to offer governments the flexibility to adopt highly diverse policy strategies.”

Finally, the international institutional landscape also needs to be much more diverse in his view.

“For too long, governments that care the most about global warming policy have also worked the hardest to protect a UN monopoly on climate diplomacy. Monopolies are especially dangerous when the best strategy is unknown. In every area of the international process on global warming – from crafting commitments by the enthusiastic nations to engaging the reluctant nations to investment in technology to adaptation – there is no consensus on what will work best. In commerce, the solution to such problems is diversity and competition, and the same lesson holds for diplomacy. This suggests that the best role for the UN is as an umbrella under which many different experimental efforts flourish and compete. The ones that succeed will attract diplomatic and industrial resources; the others will wither.”

Lots of food for thought in that book.

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