Two Articles by Ecofys and Elinor Ostrom on Multi-Tier Approaches to Combating Climate Change

I recently read two interesting articles on how to prop up the flagging UN climate process and in fact all environmental policy, even more relevant after the disappointment at Rio. The first one is by Ecofys’ Kornelis Blok, Niklas Höhne, Kees van der Leun and Nicholas Harrison. They first recall the depressing state of play: of the at least 12 Gigatonnes of emission reductions we need in 2020 to get on a trajectory to stabilise temperature increase below 2°C, so far less than 3 Gt have been secured. They then propose 21 different global initiatives that would involve a variety of actors such as companies, cities and individual citizens. The proposed initiatives cut across the board, from addressing fluorinated gases to cook stoves, and would be brought together by “globally leading organizations in the world of business, governments and non-governmental organizations.”

While recognizing that national governments remain responsible for implementing and increasing the ambition of their pledges and actions, a new coalition of scaled-up ‘bottom up’ initiatives driven by sub-sovereign and non-state actors and motivated by interests additional to emission reductions could give new momentum to international action on climate change. The successes of the coalition of initiatives have to be fed back into the UNFCCC process and have to have an impact on national government pledges. Otherwise national governments may feel released from the pressure to implement and strengthen their pledge, as they could rely on the success of action elsewhere.

While Ecofys’ “bottom-up” initiatives are in fact global, the late Elinor Ostrom thought that hope was to be found rather further down at the bottom. She would probably have frowned at Ecofys’ notion that, “Action by an individual citizen, a municipality or even a large multinational company may be considered ‘a drop in the ocean’.” In her article, she points out that

solutions negotiated at a global level, if not backed up by a variety of efforts at national, regional, and local levels, are not guaranteed to work well… To solve climate change in the long run, the day-to-day activities of individuals, families, firms, communities, and governments at multiple levels—particularly those in the more developed world—will need to change substantially. Studies now demonstrate that actions taken even at a family level can make a substantial difference.

In making her case, she first does what she got her Nobel for, debunking the received wisdom on the “tragedy of the commons”. The conventional view on collective actions problems is that individual actors will overuse common resources unless there is an external authority that imposes enforceable rules on resource use. The rationale is that each individual has the incentive to extract as much as is possible from the common resource pool, even if that will ultimately lead to the depletion of the resource. Everybody would be better off if everybody cooperated in setting limits on resource use, but no individual is motivated to change their behaviour as they consider that everyone else will continue to maximally exploit the common resource and no one wants to be a “sucker”.

Ostrom maintains that the empirical evidence is sketchy. While many instances of free-riding have been observed, there is also a very high number of examples where people have been able to self-organise to sustainably manage common resource pools, without intervention by an external authority. She also identifies factors that contribute to successful resource management.

In addition, she points out that there are many small-scale externalities embedded in the global externality of climate change. Hence local actions do not only yield global benefits, they also yield direct local benefits for the ones who are taking them, such as financial saving from saving energy and moving to renewables, and reduced local pollution.

Furthermore, shifting governance on resource use to large-scale units has in the past often led to rather bad results.

While many policy discussions lead to the perspective that global solutions are necessary for coping with the problems of climate change because of the inadequacy of local and regional efforts, few of these analyses examine the problems that large-scale units may face in developing effective policies related to resources. Before deciding that the global level is the only appropriate scale on which to address climate change, one should at least reflect on past efforts to adopt uniform policies by very large entities—efforts intended to correct for problems of collective action. The presumption that locals cannot take care of public-sector problems has led to diverse policies to place responsibility for local public services on units of government that are very large, frequently lacking the resources to carry out their assignments, and overwhelmed with what they are assigned to do…

It is important that we recognize that devising policies related to complex environmental processes is a grand challenge and that reliance on one scale to solve these problems is naïve…

Instead of focusing on a global-scale effort, a multi-scale approach to the problem of climate change would be more effective and encourage experimentation and learning.

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