International Cooperation and A Post-Kyoto Regime: Participation, Problems, and Promise


In 2005 the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, a product of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Despite its alleged success, Kyoto suffered from various shortfalls including no dispute resolution system and an exemption of the world’s developing nations. Kyoto is set to expire in 2012 and there have been continued negotiations aimed at creating a post-Kyoto regime. Yet despite continued dialogue there has been negligible progress toward meaningful agreement that would significantly reduce world greenhouse gas emissions. What can explain the lack of international agreement on climate change? This question will be analyzed using three alternative international relations frameworks: relative gains theory, republican liberalism, and neoliberal institutionalism. Relative gains theory posits that states act strategically to maximize their gains relative to other nations. Though applicable to particular countries participating in negotiations, this theory fails to recognize the inherent difficulty in making such calculations when considering complex and ambiguous problems such as climate change. Republican liberalism explains state action by studying interactions between domestic interest groups and national governments and theorizes that these complex relationships then manifest at the state level. While initially appealing, this theory ultimately fails to be adequate in dealing with problems at the international system level. Lastly, neoliberal institutionalism will be considered. This approach is primarily concerned with supranational institutions and provides a set of predictions that have largely come to fruition between states negotiating a post-Kyoto agreement.


For over a decade long-term climate change has been one of the most important topics for governments of both rich and poor countries alike. For instance, in a recent survey by the World Economic Forum climate change ranked as one of the issues with the highest aggregate score of both current governmental concern and potential global impact. Yet despite persistent rhetoric about rising sea levels, displaced populations, and widespread crop failure the global community has made little progress in the way of cooperation to stem the problem. What can explain this lack of international agreement on climate change? The question of this “dilemma of common aversion” will be examined using the Kyoto Protocol as a case study with special emphasis on the last four rounds of negotiation (since 2009) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Three alternative explanations will be discussed: relative gains theory, domestic explanations of political interest groups known as republican liberalism, and neoliberal intuitionalism. Relative gains theory is powerful at explaining some actors such as China, but fails as a universal explanation because of the difficulty of calculating gains for complex problems such as climate change. Republican liberalism offers important insights into the processes that determine state preference, but offers little predictive power or policy solutions at the global level. Neoliberal institutionalism, however, can adequately explain both the behavior of actors at a global level and provides powerful policy prescriptions that have already begun to materialize in the latest rounds of negotiations.


Scientific interest in climate change has gone through several stages. There was, in fact, little interest in the subject at all in the first half of the twentieth century. From the 1950s forward concern gradually increased within the scientific community until the late 1970s when a consensus began to emerge. The first World Climate Conference convened in 1979 and it was in 1988 that the IPCC was founded as a joint venture between the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). In 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. The Convention was an international treaty meant to help stem increasing global surface temperatures and manage the impacts of change that did occur. It has since become a framework for annual climate meetings—so-called Conventions of the Parties (COPs)—the goal of which is to spawn further treaties that call for specific reductions, the Kyoto Protocol being the most notable. It emerged in Kyoto, Japan during the 3rd annual meeting of the UNFCCC in 1997.

Climate change has only gained further prominence in recent years. Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their environmental education efforts (The Nobel Foundation 2007); during the 2009 Copenhagen round of UNFCCC negotiations 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists attended (Bhagwati 2011); and in both the 2011 and 2012 World Economic Forum surveys of global risks, climate change ranked among the top in terms of both likelihood and impact (Tambourgi et al. 2012).

The Kyoto Protocol set reduction targets on six Greenhouse gases for 37 industrialized countries and the European Community (at the time consisting of 15 European countries now subsumed within the European Union). The reductions required for each country equate to an average of a 5% reduction below 1990 levels between the period 2008-2012. Whereas other types of pollution may be feared for harmful effects to humans directly, greenhouse gas emissions are threatening through their affects on surface temperature increases of air, water, and land masses. In “the most comprehensive modeling yet” (Chandler 2009) on the subject, a group at MIT published estimates of median surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2010. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a host of negative effects if temperatures continue to rise. These include increasing drought and water stress, increased plant and animal extinction, extensive coastal flooding, redistribution of fertile croplands, severe heat waves and storm patterns, and negative health impacts including malnutrition, cardio-respiratory problems, and infectious diseases (I.P.O.C. 2007).

At first glance the Kyoto Protocol seems to negate the central question of this paper—if there, in fact, has been global cooperation on climate change why is there an open question as to the nature of any alleged lack of international climate agreement? As the world’s first international treaty regulating climate change the important precedent set by Kyoto should be recognized. However, it should not be oversold. Kyoto was limited along several important dimensions that only further animates questions about global recalcitrance toward significant agreement.

First, Kyoto was mainly a treaty aimed at industrially developed nations. All developing countries were excluded from emissions restrictions including China, which has grown into the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Second, Kyoto had limited enforcement power. The United States delegation during the Kyoto meeting signed the treaty, but after returning home the United States Congress refused ratification. The fact that the United States was at the time the largest greenhouse gas emitter only exacerbated the magnitude of the enforcement problem (the US is now second behind China). This enforcement problem also extents to violations of the protocol. In May of 2011 Russia, Japan, and Canada announced they would not join the Kyoto extension after the initial agreement expired in 2012 (The Sydney Morning Herald 2011) and in December Canada announced it would leave Kyoto altogether to avoid paying billions in fees (Austen 2011). Third, the agreement was of limited duration: the period between 2005 and 2012. It makes perfect sense to draft an agreement of limited length so that its goals and success can be reevaluated and updated as needed. Nevertheless, it only postpones wider agreement until 2012—an agreement that must now incorporate not only developed countries, but developing ones as well, to say nothing of the more stringent reductions now required if climate change is to be stemmed.

Clearly, then, this is a case of “anarchy” if we take the term to mean the absence of legitimate international government in the same way it exists in domestic politics—the usual definition employed in IR (see Waltz 1979, for example). This fact, however, merely creates a point of departure. That there is no central authority in global politics is a fact, not a theory. To what extent anarchy defines the actions of, and relations between, states is the heart of the matter and where important cleavages between theories emerge.

Three such approaches that take differing views on the prospects of anarchy will be discussed throughout the remainder of this paper. These three are relative gains theory, republican liberalism, and neoliberal institutionalism. Though not comprehensive of the entire field, these three IR theories offer the most compelling possible explanations concerning the lack of global agreement on climate change. What follows is an elaboration of each of these theories and its application to climate change. While each can explain some portion of the friction between countries, only neoliberal institutionalism can fully explain and predict current affairs.

Relative Gains

One result of anarchy might be that states maximize their relative power—the size of their slice of the pie rather than the size of the pie itself. Under this view State A would be perfectly willing to give up some power as long as State B lost more of its own power. “For sure, each state tries to maximize its absolute gains; still, it is more important for a state to make sure it does no worse, and perhaps better, than the other state in any agreement (Mearsheimer 2001, p. 68),” wrote theorist John Mearsheimer. Relative gains theory entails additional calculations since two different aspects of “pie growth” must be considered—the size of the pie and your slice of it. As a result, relative gains theory argues that “cooperation is more difficult to achieve…when states are attuned to relative gains rather than absolute gains (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 68).” One possible explanation for a lack of climate agreement, therefore, is that states are reluctant to sign climate treaties because they fear relative losses.

To be clear, we must ask what “gains” and “losses” we have in mind. Climate change involves the weighing of current gains and losses in economic growth against a more amorphous calculation of potential future losses that differ by country, but likely includes economic, environmental, and citizen welfare considerations. The calculation is cofounded by the fact that the world is a global commons and as such greenhouse gases affect all countries roughly equally regardless of the country that originally released the gases.

Current reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are inextricably linked to economic growth. This is because CO2, the most prominent greenhouse gas, is mainly a product of transportation and energy sectors, which often compose significant portions of a nation’s economy. Government regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions will necessarily need to take into account reductions in CO2, thus limiting transportation and energy sector growth and through this channel affecting overall GDP growth. Further, economic gains and losses are a direct channel to political power. As Robert Gilpin eloquently phrased it: “In a world in which power rests increasingly on economic and industrial capabilities, one cannot really distinguish between wealth…and power as national goals (Gilpin 1975).”

To be sure, particular countries are exhibiting some signs of relative gains calculations. China is one such example. Though it has often marketed itself as a 21st century economic powerhouse, when it comes to climate change agreement China has aligned with the developing countries of the Group of 77 (G77) (a group that actually includes 132 countries). For example, after the opening day of the talks in Durban, South Africa at the end of 2011, the G77 and China released a joint statement calling for meaningful progress during the talks (Executive Secretariat of the Group of 77 2011). While China continues to show modest per capita GDP, there is irony in the world’s second largest economy aligning with developing nations, many of which have economies orders of magnitude smaller than China (to say nothing of their comparison to sustained Chinese growth). By positioning itself as a developing country and mounting continued momentum toward the view that developing countries should receive aid and face more lenient emissions requirements, China stands to benefit from the subsidies of rich countries even as its own economy grows further ahead of those providing support.

Relative gains theory falls short when applied systematically, however. In addition to the challenges of weighing short-term economic security against uncertain global risk decades in the future, the calculation of relative gains is complicated further by the specific features of the Kyoto Protocol. Such features include the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that allows for investment of green energy projects in developing countries; Joint Implementation (JI), which enables developed countries to invest in each other in exchange for carbon credits; and Emissions Trading, a global carbon credit trading market. Such interconnectedness makes it difficult to predict what strategies particular countries will favor over the long run and thus which states stand to gain in relation to others.

A deeper analysis of UNFCCC negotiations reveals that there is significant state action operating outside of relative gains calculations. It is clear that a variety of institutional pressures and norms have developed that guide state action to particular ends. The details of these features will be taken up when discussing neoliberal institutionalism.

Republican Liberalism

A second theory that can be directed toward explaining the lack of climate change agreement is republican liberalism. This theory posits that state action is simply a manifestation of domestic interests. It “emphasizes the ways in which domestic institutions and practices aggregate…transforming them into state policy. The key variable… [is] whose social preferences dominate state policy [emphasis original] (Reus-Smit 2008, p. 244).” The theory studies governing coalitions, regulatory capture, unions, lobbyists, administrators and others who affect and determine foreign policy.

There is a lot to like about republican liberalism, starting with the fact that the theory is an articulation of what is obvious: states are artificial and abstract conceptions. In practical terms it means nothing to say that “China” signed a treaty. “China” has no hands. What we mean when we say “China signed” is that some Chinese official was sent to a conference and he or she signed a treaty. The authority to do so was given by others in the Chinese government who calculated that signing the treaty would most probably lead to particular benefits for particular parties within the country. Still other experts helped make those policy determinations, themselves likely influenced still further by domestic groups: firms, political strategists, unions, and so on. This process is true for issues of both a domestic and international nature.

Republican liberalism, then, suggests that we should follow the trail of actors that determine policy in the real world rather than abstract to the state level. They might likely point to the global financial crisis, for example, to explain the lack of forward movement toward climate agreement since 2008. One common charge of states’ domestic politics is that their governments can bank on only a scarce amount of “political capital.” When a significant crisis occurs they must put other issues on the back burner and put out the fire of the moment. Since the financial crisis has been consuming significant political capital of countries across the world, it stands to reason that issues with long time horizons—like climate change—are put aside until the crisis subsides.

What about the period before the financial crisis? A republican liberal would likely respond that there was not sufficient simultaneous policy alignment at the domestic level of enough countries to form common international agreement. Perhaps in 2004 Russia was willing to concede to additional emission cuts and India was not, whereas in 2005, because of domestic politics, the situation reversed. Since the government of neither country wanted to sign at the same time as the other, no agreement was made. Multiply this situation times the 194 countries currently negotiating within the UNFCCC and the picture becomes as dire as it is complex.

To be sure, it is domestic actors who both determine and implement policy. But such a theory borders on being something other than international relations. There is no end to the hole down which one can descend when studying the complex interconnections and motivations of domestic actors. Further, it is impossible to determine a priori who might “win” the game of domestic politics. Who is more persuasive: the teacher’s union or the political lobbyist; the citizens’ movement or the corporation; municipal jurisdictions or presidential policy advisors? It is impossible to know until after the battle has already been won and so republican liberalism has powerful ex post facto descriptive abilities in some holistic view of what comprises politics, but much less to say if events within the international system itself is our primary concern.

To reify states we don’t need them to grow arms and legs and a brain. We only need that the infinitely complex affairs of domestic actors consistently materialize at the state level as if states had interests, fears, and desires. The evaluation of neoliberal institutionalism will show that abstraction to the state level is quite useful indeed.

Neoliberal Intuitionalism

The third, final, and most compelling theory to be discussed is neoliberal institutionalism. Its primary axiom is simple: no state is an island unto itself. In the Oxford Handbook of International Relations Andrew Moravcsik summarizes the view as follows: “The universal condition of world politics is globalization. States are, and always have been, embedded in a domestic and transnational society…that transcends borders (Reus-Smit 2008, p. 234).” Already the theory quickly becomes promising to the problem of climate change since there is perhaps no more globalized issue—emissions from any single country cause atmospheric change that affects every other country. Like realism, neoliberal intuitionalism uses the state as the primary unit of analysis and assumes state power and interests. From here it diverges from the former theory, intuiting a role for international institutions under the premise that states are just as likely to protect their interests by cooperation as by exclusion. This does not imply, however, that international cooperation is automatic, only that it is possible and that states may indeed seek such cooperation for a variety of reasons to be discussed momentarily.

Neoliberal intuitionalists are generally sanguine about the role of institutions in global politics and it is important to give this view credence. There are now 194 countries participating in the UNFCC; getting 194 nations to simultaneously talk about anything is itself an accomplishment and demonstration of the power of global institutions. It’s worth noting that the UNFCCC is itself an arm of the United Nations, perhaps the most important global cooperative the world has ever known. Undoubtedly, these institutions have fallen short in specific areas and have been prone to particular problems, the generating function for this paper. Nonetheless, that international institutions have formed in increasing numbers to cover a widening array of political, economic, and environmental issues suggests that the view of neoliberal intuitionalists deserves particular consideration when discussing a body such as the UNFCCC and its resulting Kyoto Protocol.

The theory posits that international institutions help create and enforce norms that influence state behavior, that defection and cheating will be the biggest obstacles to agreement, that international institutions will therefore try to develop regulations that limit cheating, but that reduced transaction costs can also provide incentives for cooperation.

International Norms

Social norms – one of the many concepts in IR theory brought over from microeconomics – “are customary rules of behavior that coordinate our interactions with others (Young 2008).” Abstracted to the international level such norms might include believing that only democracies should have rights to hold nuclear weapons or that it is the responsibility of rich countries to provide aid to poorer ones.

There are two major international norms that have emerged regarding climate change. Together they work bidirectionally, both to pull states together and drive them apart. On one hand it is clear that a norm has developed that prescribes that countries should be participants in UNFCCC negotiations. Over time more and more nations have joined the Kyoto Protocol, yet the Protocol itself covers only a fraction of the world’s nations. Signing has become a sign of goodwill and signal that a nation is committed to future dialogue.

Norms are not regulated, of course, so countries are free to break them. The United States is one such example – it has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. As the world’s hegemony it can afford to do so, but this has not stopped it from facing opposition and pressure for its breaking of this international norm. Notably, in 2007, France threatened to persuade the EU to impose a carbon tax on US imports if America did not sign Kyoto (Bennhold 2007).

That some states have been so recalcitrant to actually do something about their greenhouse gas emissions (rather than to simply talk about doing something) only strengthens evidence of this norm. Why become party to a discussion about an issue you have no intention of implementing if not to show that you are at the table “cooperating” like everyone else.

However, there is another norm acting to divide countries: belief about who should shoulder the burden of emissions reductions. To rich countries the international norm dictates that because climate change is a global problem, everyone should participate in the solution; poor countries disagree, arguing the norm should be that those nations most able to handle the economic impact of emissions reductions should be responsible until developing countries have matured economically. Both norms revolve around fairness and equity, just along different dimensions.

This issue—the difference in expectations between rich and poor countries—is one of the most prominent reasons climate change agreement has failed to move forward. The title of a November 2011 article from the Associated Press reviewing the prospects for the Durban talks aptly sums up this polarity, “Climate talks’ focus again falls on rich-poor divide (Max 2011).” Neoliberal institutionalists usually envision the enforcement of norms as a benefit, providing international pressure toward some positive outcome. If the norms are disparate and deeply entrenched, however, climate change negotiations demonstrate the norms can act to stymie broader agreement.

Defection and Cheating

Neoliberals often rely heavily on a concept borrowed from economics known as “game theory.” The most prominent example of game theoretic calculations is the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma in which two prisoners must decide if they should rat out their accomplice. Though perhaps not obvious from this description, game theory offers explanatory power for several of the features of climate change negotiations.

What two countries might we envision to play the role of our two prisoners? The dilemma applies most aptly to China and the United States. Together they account for 43.1% of all CO2 emissions (Council on Foreign Relations 2011) and their policy toward one another is at once cooperative and combative. A December 2011 article in the British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, for instance, reported that, “[a]t the moment the US and China are holding back the negotiations because neither country is willing to move first (Gray 2011).” Thus a narrow way to envision the problem of climate agreement is as a two party coordination problem between these two nations. Each party has preference map DC>CC>DD>CD where coordination requires sacrifices to economic growth and defection does not (for more on game theory and cooperation see Oye 1985). Each party is driven toward defection resulting in DD, or in this particular case, no change to the status quo. Indeed, the status quo is exactly where the United States and China are today, both remain outside the group of nations party to current Kyoto reductions and seem unwilling to budge until the other party’s cooperation is guaranteed to their liking.

As predicted by neoliberal institutionalism, then, defection and cheating remain central problems to climate agreement, hindering countries from moving forward for fear a key counterparty might leave the post-Kyoto agreement. This prediction is more than speculative, however; in fact, defection from Kyoto hasalready happened. In May of 2011 Russia, Japan, and Canada informed the G8 that they would not submit to additional carbon cuts after the first round of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Then in December Canada left Kyoto altogether to avoid paying billions in noncompliance fees.

As a result, neoliberal institutionalism further theorizes that when countries prefer unilateral defection to unrequited cooperation, binding institutionalized regulations will be required. Indeed, a big focus of the 2011 Durban round of negotiations centered around how to make the follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol have more legal force in order to avoid a repeat of Canada’s all-out defection. After many hours of negotiation it was finally decided that the countries will, by 2015, devise a treaty with a “legal outcome” (Framework Convention on Climate Change 2011).

However, game theory adds a wrinkle when cooperation is iterative. Incentives for cooperation change when states know they will deal with one another long into the future and when dissimilar games are played simultaneously. For example, consider two states that must engage in economic trade, nuclear arms agreements, climate change negotiations, regulations concerning international law and human rights, and so on. To be sure, in today’s world every state is engaged in multiple types of games with every other state, but some groups of nations are already locked in economic or diplomatic governance structures of above average strength. The European Union is one such group. Because of their strong economic ties there has been little difficulty in getting EU countries to work together on climate change. Similarly, the G77 have united together in climate change negotiations as they have carried over their union from the broader United Nations body. OPEC is another such organization that has operated together during negotiations. These groups likely do not fear defection and cheating among one another because of their past history and likely future cooperation across a variety of international issues.

None of this internal cooperation was inevitable, of course, but it helps speak to the power of global institutions that cooperation can be carried across issues. It also helps deepen the understanding about how the norms between rich and poor countries developed. Nations likely carry baggage from other iterated foreign policy games to the arena of climate change, and with that baggage import their norms about how best to organize the global system. Rich countries like those of the EU, the developing nations of the G77, and OPEC have certainly experienced different historical accretion, participation in the global system, and effects of anarchy and thus it makes perfect sense that their norms about state behavior should differ. Indeed, one review of climate negotiation history noted that, “The division of the globe into two unequal parts was embedded in the first climate convention adopted in 1992 (Max 2011).” This divide has remained embedded ever since.

Adding to the difficulty of concerns about defection is the reality that there is no effective verification plan in place to assure stated emission reductions. A path forward for a so-called MRV plan—‘M’ for ‘Measurable’, ‘R’ for ‘Reportable’, and ‘V’ for ‘Verifiable’—was accepted during the 2007 Bali talks, and later strengthened during Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 and Cancún in 2010. Despite this limited progress the details remain undecided. Greenhouse gas emission measurements are technically difficult and many developing countries simply do not have the means to physically measure output. Current reporting for developing countries only requires a public release of emissions every six years and these figures are often only estimates based on extrapolation from key polluting industries (Council on Foreign Relations 2011). It is easy to see that difficulty with MRV only exacerbates fears of cheating because with such large margins of error there is little incentive for countries to pursue accurate emissions reporting.

Transaction Costs

Under normal circumstances, fears of cheating and defection are partially offset by advantages of reduced transaction costs and thus supranational institutions may still form even without binding regulation to counter defection. One hope in forming the UNFCCC was that it would eventually implement mechanisms that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (such as CDM, JI, and Emissions Trading discussed previously) and leverage economies towards the creation of initiatives like joint funds that would pool monies for certain projects.

Despite these hopes, however, the UNFCCC has grown bureaucratic and started to falter under its own weight (Council on Foreign Relations 2011). One study found that less than 30% of the funds from the CDM program actually went to toward emissions reductions with the remainder being spent on administrative costs (Burston and Haynes 2009). The JI initiative also remains burdensome with a complex approval process, eligibility requirements, committees, working groups, and so on (UNFCCC). Here the traditional benefits seen in transaction costs have been negligible, or even counter productive, and so have not provided an incentive toward agreement sufficient to overcome the probabilities of cheating and defection and of the obvious polarity in norms.

It is no surprise, then, that many smaller institutions have popped up recently to skirt the burdensome procedures of the UNFCCC and once again try to regain a reduction in transaction costs. These organizations have been both supranational and subnational in nature. An informal search revels an alphabet soup of over 100 such organizations of varying size and regional focus: the Global Climate Network, an alliance of research think tanks in nine countries; the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group made up of 40 of the world’s largest cities working together to reduce carbon emissions; the International Climate Change Partnership, a worldwide group of companies and trade associations; and so on.

These groups prove both that there is still strong momentum toward fighting climate change and that nations, and cities for that matter, are willing to skirt burdensome procedures if they feel like non-UNFCCC groups can add additional benefits and reduced transaction costs.

Room for Optimism?

In a 2006 essay, David Victor pointed to the World Trade Organization as a possible model for future climate change negotiations (Victor 2006). Indeed, the WTO seems to be in the position the UNFCCC is striving toward in the post-Kyoto regime. Like the UNFCCC, the WTO membership includes a vast array of countries (over 130) with different beliefs about how trade should operate. However, unlike the UNFCCC, the WTO has reduced transaction costs by standardizing a universal trade framework that has provided sufficient motivation (in most cases) for countries to compromise on norm divergence. Moreover, the WTO has implemented a dispute resolution system that member countries have abided by quite willingly, unlike Canada’s easy dismissal of Kyoto. Finally, also unlike climate change the gains and losses from trade are more readily identifiable and so cooperation is easier since each country knows what it is gaining and giving up, both in the present and foreseeable future.

So can the WTO really give us hope that the UNFCCC might one day (soon) produce a follow-on to Kyoto that can make a significant dent in global greenhouse gas emissions? The WTO certainly proves global cooperation is possible, but by no means certain. Victor envisions an evolution of a post-Kyoto agreement that mimics that of the WTO—an initial agreement with approximately a dozen high-emission countries followed by gradual incorporation of remaining nations. This evolutionary process for trade agreements, starting with GATT and later transforming into the WTO, took decades, however, and unlike trade, climate change represents a global commons problem with shared environmental consequences as long as agreement is delayed. Such a gradual path toward agreement may leave the world devastated from environmental degradation before an agreement is reached.

If a post-Kyoto consensus is to work there will need to be an overhaul of the current regime. First, particular aspects of the UNFCCC will need an update: a streamlining of the mechanisms to measure and verify reductions for each member country, a redesign of the cross-country carbon trading and green technology investment functions, and perhaps a reimagining of the negotiation process itself. Second, countries will need to buy into an international authority for dispute resolution, as they have done with the WTO, and not defect from the agreement at the first sign of monetary penalty. It will probably not happen until the third and crucial change is realized—a method to calculate the future costs of climate change more accurately. Thus far environmental impact estimates have been rather vague conjectures, usually embodied by a list of possible repercussions without detailed geographic specificity—something along the lines of, “increased coastal flooding.” As the economic consequences of climate change become increasingly apparent, either from improved scientific modeling or from actual environmental changes, countries will be better positioned to determine just how much cooperation they will be willing to provide and what specific reparations they need in return. This exactness can only help negotiations.


What can explain the lack of international agreement on climate change? Neoliberal institutionalism points at several complementary causes. First, competing state norms have developed among the nearly two-hundred countries party to the UNFCCC. On one hand these norms have drawn countries toward dialogue on the issue, but on the other nations have diverged in their beliefs about who should shoulder the economic burden. Rich countries continue to believe that every nation should cut emissions equally while poor countries maintain that it is the rich countries’ responsibility until developing nations mature economically.

Additionally, defection and cheating remain a concern for many members of the UNFCCC, and for good reason, as Canada, Russia, and Japan have recently abandoned Kyoto altogether. Efforts are underway to improve MRV, especially in developing countries, and to institute legally binding regulations. Both moves are aimed at helping reduce fears of cheating and defection in the future, the goal being to bring more substantive emission reduction agreement from a wider membership.

Finally, reduced transaction costs have not been realized, negating a primary goal of most international institutions. Many of the programs designed to encourage cross-country investment and the pooling of resources have turned out to be inefficient, and as such have provided little incentive to move past differences in norms and fears of defection and cheating.

If major reforms are undertaken there is a chance the post-Kyoto regime might move toward the WTO model. In addition to institutional reforms, however, for this prospect to materialize it will take improved measurement technologies that can more accurately ascribe gains and losses to future climate change possibilities. Moreover, it will take the kind of cooperation sometimes seen at the micro level—in the work of Elinor Ostrom, for example. The 2009 Nobel Prize recipient undertook pioneering research that showed even common goods problems can be solved without an overarching sovereign authority. Such cooperation does not require altruism, simply an understanding that a marginal loss in the short-term may well lead to greater marginal gains that can extend indefinitely into the future. This sort of cooperation works best when groups are geographically restrained to a particular region and cannot simply exhaust a pasture only to move one field over and repeat the process. As the effects of climate change are further realized, as the processes of the UNFCCC and similar organizations are improved, and as our ability to measure and calculate the future effects from climate change improve, it is likely that global cooperation will also improve. After all, whatever reality of climate change emerges in the future, one fact will remain constant—there is only one earth and we are not at liberty to “move one planet over” and start again. We can only hope that these necessary improvements outpace the harm done by continued emissions in the meanwhile.




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