How important is reciprocity for climate policy?

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.1 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.

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Author: Shirley