Monday, May 29, 2006

Global warming: legislating for temperance

Last week I looked at Garrett Harding’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ idea. In an unregulated common, each individual gains all the benefit from intensifying his or her use or pollution of it, while only facing a portion of the cost of that intensification. So everyone has an incentive to use and pollute it more, to the eventual detriment of all.

The tragedy of the commons is an example of what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. I won’t go into detail (check out the wikipedia entry for a good explanation) but the general idea is that the game is set up so that it is in each player’s individual interest to cheat, so they all do, but that ultimately leads to everyone being worse off than if they’d all co-operated.

It seems to me that the current international negotiations about climate change are the ultimate prisoner’s dilemma. It is in each nation’s best (economic) interests to have each other country do something about limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but not do something themselves. If you take on costly measures to reduce your emissions and everyone else does too, that’s good. But better is if you avoid the cost and let everyone else do the work. Worst is if you take on the cost and no-one else does – you cop the economic hit to your industries of emission costs and you still get hit with the costs of global warming. So, individually, it’s in each country’s best interests to do nothing. Of course, collectively, that spells disaster for us all.

The way around this is by not acting in our own selfish interests, but getting together and agreeing on measures for every country to reduce its emissions – as Harding said ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’.

In the early 1990s, 189 countries came to this realisation and signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came into force in 1994. This provided for general measures such as compiling and sharing data about emissions and climatic changes. In 1997 this was turned into more concrete obligations through the Kyoto Protocol, which 84 countries – including the US and Australia – signed. The Protocol came into effect last year when ratified by countries with more than 55% of global greenhouse emissions. It has now been ratified by 163 nations. The US and Australian governments have had a change of heart since signing the Protocol and have said they will not seek to ratify it, which means they are not bound by it. The only other countries which have signed and then failed to ratify are Croatia, Kazakhstan, and Zambia.

So Kyoto has a good coverage of countries with only very few dissenters. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that Kyoto looks vulnerable. The Australian and US governments have not only not joined - they seem to want to undermine it. The have claimed that Kyoto is unfair and ineffective because it does not place emissions limits on developing countries. Developing countries say it would be unfair to do so because they need to emit more in order to develop. They suggest that if industrial countries want them to reduce their emissions, they should assist them in developing cleaner energy. (That is already part of how Kyoto works – countries can gain credits by investing in emissions reduction projects in developing countries.)

And this impasse might be getting even more entrenched. Few countries have yet taken strong steps to reduce emissions and the countries which look like they may not be going to meet their obligations are rethinking their commitment – not least because they see the US and Australia getting away with thumbing their noses at the Protocol. Canada’s new government has taken some pot shots at the Kyoto Protocol and says Canada will not meet its targets, although for now it has said it will remain in the Protocol for the next commitment period beginning in 2012. The first round of obligations has set a very modest target of a 5% reduction from 1990 levels among industrialised countries. Even that may not be met and when developing countries are considered, total global emissions will have increased since 1990.

Meetings have just taken place in Bonn to start talking about targets for the second period, starting in 2012. These will need to be much stricter targets and the political will to take these on might be waning with Australia, the US and developing countries not taking on targets and countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Japan having trouble meeting even their first round targets.

To speculate about the way forward, the glimmers of hope seem to me to be:

  • National action will become less important as local, state and regional governments and communities take bolder measures;
  • International aid will be increasingly targeted at clean energy, helping to restrain emissions growth in developing countries;
  • There will be modest technological advances which help decouple economic growth from emissions growth.
But ultimately I think our biggest saviour may just be peak oil. Oil’s not going to run out any time soon but it seems like it will get gradually more expensive to produce as the cheapest sources are exhausted. I don’t know if oil prices will stay at current levels, go up or go down, but I doubt they’ll return quickly to less than US$30, where they were only a couple of years ago. At current levels, a whole range of alternative energy sources become commercially viable (see this article from The Economist).

Harding’s solution to the tragedy of the commons was to all agree to limit how many cattle we graze there. We’re having trouble doing that, so it might be a good thing that we seem to be slowly running out of cows.


David Roberts said...

David, good post. I have some thoughts on it here:

Wadard said...

Nicely expressed dilemma.

David Jeffery said...

Thanks David and take your point. I'll try and post soon about the peak oil - coal connection.

Anonymous said...

I've read here ( that about 9000 protected areas in Australia are already critical for nature conservation because of climate change caused mostly because of oil, coal and other fossil fuels. We all know that Kyoto protocol isn't worthy of anything as long the "almighty USA" stands on its way. All plans that should reduce emissions have delay of about 20-50 years and we have to act now. It's not enough to say: "we'll cut down our emissions by 30 % until the year 2050" because till that time all actions could be nothing more than "too little, too late"

Renova said...

the game is set up so that it is in each player’s individual interest to cheat, so they all do, but that ultimately leads to everyone being worse off than if they’d all co-operated.

- interesting, need to read up more on prisoner's dilemma