At least since the Copenhagen summit of 2009, global climate negotiations have stalled. Both academic researchers and policy analysts have recently emphasized the need to develop innovative strategies to break the negotiation gridlock. One such argument is that if major emitters show ‘leadership’ by adopting ambitious national policies, they can build trust and move the negotiations forward. This argument was recently made in a joint report authored by Terry Townshend and Adam C.T. Matthews for the Climate & Development Knowledge Network and GLOBE International. They argue that “[n]ational climate change legislation is not just something that should underpin an international agreement after it has been reached, rather it is an enabler that creates the political space for a deal” based on an observed positive association between domestic legislation and climate policy positions.

There is an obvious flaw in this argument, given that both domestic legislation and climate policy positions could be driven by some third factor such as green public opinion or interest group pressure. However, the argument itself is worth considering. According to the report, domestic policy action could spill over to international climate negotiations and create a critical mass of key countries willing to commit to emissions reductions. The authors conjecture that ambitious national actions will ultimately prove popular and successful in their countries because they produce co-benefits such as improved energy security and energy efficiency, and this change allows national negotiators to engage in meaningful bargaining without crippling domestic constraints.

At the same time, domestic national actions can also undermine bargaining. David Victor argues in his recent book Global Warming Gridlock that if countries implement national policies that are unconditional, they give away their bargaining leverage. When the European Union chooses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions regardless of what other countries do, other major emitters have few incentives to negotiate with it. If Europe’s contribution to climate mitigation does not depend on what China and the United States do, the outcome could be that the latter two decide to free-ride on Europe’s actions.

Unfortunately, it is really hard to evaluate the balance of these two countervailing forces. This is ultimately an empirical question, and it is not as though there is a huge statistical database of past climate negotiations that one could build on. Evidence from other international treaties, such as the Montreal Protocol against ozone depletion, is also suspect because of differences in the context. The current debate is useful in that it characterizes the arguments and highlights the relationship between national action and international climate agreements, but I have serious reservations about declaring victory for any of the arguments based on the available evidence.