Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Laws




Steyn, Elizabeth


University of Calgary

2nd Supervisor

Martin, Margaret

Joint Supervisor


International environmental law suffers from poor compliance and participation, hindering its ability to address global climate issues effectively. Efforts to improve this have been borne out of a rational choice framework, in which it is assumed that states are rational actors that seek to maximize their utility. This theory has dominated international legal scholarship for decades, but it cannot adequately capture the reality of state decision-making. This work argues that rational choice theory must incorporate psychological factors in its analysis of state behaviours to strategically form effective international environmental agreements – specifically by using rewarding mechanisms as positive incentives. Using the Montreal Protocol as an example of effective rewarding mechanisms, this paper provides an alternative strategy for increasing participation and compliance with international environmental agreements.

Summary for Lay Audience

The urgency of the climate crisis demands a re-evaluation of international environmental agreements. Despite a long history of coordinated efforts, environmental challenges continue to grow more dire. While attempts have been made to establish an effective international climate regime, its efficacy continues to be hampered by limited state participation and compliance. As environmental degradation accelerates, a critical evaluation of current treaty design is essential to identify and address the shortcomings of international environmental law.

For decades, the study of international law has been dominated by rational choice theory, which posits that states function as rational actors driven by maximizing potential benefits. While rational choice theory remains influential, it has been criticized for neglecting the impact of emotions and psychology on decision-making. This work argues that expanding the scope of rational choice theory to incorporate these considerations is vital for enhancing the effectiveness of international environmental agreements. By leveraging insights from psychology and behavioural science, strategic tools like rewarding mechanisms can be employed to incentivize state participation and compliance. Rewarding mechanisms are internal and external benefits that entice states to participate and comply with treaty obligations. They can take the form of financial rewards, reputational gains, and exclusive trading benefits, among others.

The Montreal Protocol is a compelling testament to the effectiveness of such mechanisms. The inclusion of exclusive trade provisions, club goods, financial assistance, and reputational gains helped the Protocol become one of the most effective international environmental agreements of all time. This success demonstrates how strategic treaty design that incorporates both logic and psychology can bolster the international environmental regulatory regime. By adopting a more nuanced approach to international cooperation, we can pave the way for the development of stronger environmental agreements, ultimately safeguarding the health of our planet.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.