Positional Bargaining: a hindrance at Paris?

Published on: April 18, 2015

Filed Under: Commentary

What is positional bargaining?

In the past, UNFCCC negotiations have tended towards positional bargaining. This has had a negative effect on outcomes. In positional negotiations, parties each offer a separate position on an issue and then bargain from that position until a common ground can be reached (Fisher, Ury & Patton, 1991). This often leads to suboptimal outcomes in consensus negotiations as parties are forced to accept the position advanced by the lowest common denominator. Reluctant parties who are unwilling to budge or co-operate can, and do, stifle outcomes in many UNFCCC negotiations.

The Copenhagen Accord is a testament to this – because of poor negotiation and unwilling participants, no meaningful or binding agreement could be reached (Kouchajki, 2014). The COP at Warsaw in 2013 also suffered. At the insistence of some developing country governments, there was a last minute downgrading of the word “commitments” to the weaker “contributions” in the context of emissions cuts (Yeo, 2013). There is a fear that this same dilution may happen once again in Paris, meaning either an ineffective agreement or no binding agreement at all.

How can we prevent the same situation from arising in Paris?

To prevent the brick wall that is positional bargaining, it is imperative that there be sufficient time for negotiating parties to establish meaningful outcomes. In terms of the upcoming Paris COP, this means that states must lay their intended contributions towards tackling climate change and greenhouse gas emissions (known as INDCs) on the table at an early stage. This is one of the reasons why the Paris Conference seems more promising than preceding UNFCCC negotiations, as member-states have been required to submit their INDCs months before the conference is held.

At the same time, there must be a common goal which member-states are working towards. The Copenhagen Accord, while failing to commit states to meaningful action against climate change, established that UNFCCC member-states should work to stop the Earth’s global average temperature from rising 1.5-2 °C above pre-industrial levels. This is a clear goal, as it provides an objective and numerical basis for the Paris agreement.

Once these two elements have been achieved early in the process, parties are able to negotiate their respective contributions. However, negotiations should be flexible, with parties open to changing their positions in order to achieve the objective goal. A successful negotiation would be characterised by reason and mutual understanding, rather than an “us vs them” mentality.

This form of negotiation is known as integrative bargaining, and it is far more conductive towards achieving solid, measurable results than the battle of wills which characterises positional bargaining.

It is with this mind-set that negotiating parties should approach the Paris COP: with a focus on the objective outcomes, and with the view of all member-states as joint problem-solvers.

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