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Climate negotiation as a bargaining game

May 12, 2014
Northeastern University
For more than two decades, mem­bers of the United Nations have sought to forge an agree­ment to reduce global green­house gas emis­sions. But so far, these inter­na­tional cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions have had lim­ited success. International climate negotiations have failed for 25 years. New research uses game theory to find out why, and what we can do to win the climate game.

For more than two decades, mem­bers of the United Nations have sought to forge an agree­ment to reduce global green­house gas emis­sions. But so far, these inter­na­tional cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions have had lim­ited success.

What's more, game the­o­ret­ical mod­eling of the nego­ti­a­tions sug­gests that there are fea­sible solu­tions to the problem. That is, there are com­mit­ments that the coun­tries par­tic­i­pating in the nego­ti­a­tions could agree to that would accom­plish the tar­geted global emis­sions reduc­tions. "So, if these solu­tions are there, the ques­tion is why nego­ti­a­tions have not yet reached them -- why don't we have an agree­ment," said Ron San­dler, a pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity who focuses on envi­ron­mental ethics.

"We thought the problem might be not be with the poten­tial solu­tions that might or might not exist, but rather reaching them from where we are now," added Rory Smead, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Phi­los­ophy at North­eastern and an expert in game theory.

In a paper released Sunday in the journal Nature Cli­mate Change, Smead, San­dler, and their col­leagues, including North­eastern Assis­tant Pro­fessor John Basl, put forth a new mod­eling approach that exam­ines this very problem. The results sug­gest that side agree­ments, such as bilat­eral com­mit­ments between the US and China or those made in venues like the G8 and G20 sum­mits may be even more impor­tant than pre­vi­ously suspected.

Most cli­mate nego­ti­a­tion mod­eling studies have used social dilemma games such as the prisoner's dilemma, in which the best inter­ests of the indi­vidual agent are not the same as those of the whole. But, as Smead said, "All coun­tries in a sense want to solve this problem -- what they dis­agree on is how to go about solving it."

So rather than using a social dilemma game, the research team used a bar­gaining nego­ti­a­tion model. Here's how it works: Mul­tiple players must coor­di­nate on an agree­ment with the goal of cut­ting global green­house gas emis­sions by the tar­geted amount. While each agent would like to keep his own reduc­tions as low as pos­sible, he would prefer to increase his pro­posal if it means the group would be more likely to reach a con­sensus. "If push comes to shove, they'd prefer to do more," Smead said.

The game starts with each player making an ini­tial pro­posal to reduce emis­sions by a cer­tain amount. Then the players see what their fellow par­tic­i­pants pro­posed to and read­just their own pro­posals. Repeating this sev­eral times will even­tu­ally either lead to a break down in nego­ti­a­tions or an agree­ment that makes everyone happy.

It's a simple model that doesn't take into account such things as national pol­i­tics and enforce­ment sce­narios, but it has an impor­tant fea­ture: It reveals poten­tial bar­riers to suc­cessful nego­ti­a­tions that might be hidden in more com­plex models.

The research team found that a few fac­tors were extremely impor­tant in main­taining suc­cessful nego­ti­a­tions. In par­tic­ular, agree­ments were more likely to be reached if the group was­ com­prised of fewer agents rather than many; if the group con­sisted of a variety of small and large emit­ters; and if the per­ceived indi­vidual threat of not reaching an agree­ment was high.

"The results bare on a number of polit­ical ques­tions," San­dler said. "For instance, while we ulti­mately need an agree­ment that includes reduc­tions from almost everyone, side agree­ments among smaller num­bers of par­tic­i­pants don't undermine -- but may actu­ally promote -- the U.N. process."

Since smaller groups are more likely to reach con­sensus, the researchers said, it would be better for a sub­group of coun­tries to come to a con­sensus on its own and then bring that single pro­posal to the larger group.

"It would be much better if the rest of the world could figure out a poten­tial agree­ment and then invite coun­tries such as China and the U.S. to the table," Smead explained. If that smaller group's offer is sufficient -- that is, if it promises to reduce emis­sions by the pro­por­tional amount nec­es­sary to achieve the global goal -- then it should be suc­cessful in the larger venue.

This sug­gests that efforts such as the G8 and G20 cli­mate sum­mits are actu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to the efforts of the United Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, which is con­sid­ered the most impor­tant cli­mate bar­gaining forum. Many have wor­ried that these smaller efforts weaken UNFCCC's work, but the new research dis­putes that concern.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Northeastern University. Original written by Angela Herring. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Rory Smead, Ronald L. Sandler, Patrick Forber, John Basl. A bargaining game analysis of international climate negotiations. Nature Climate Change, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2229

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