Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | February 1, 2010

Does responding to climate change have to be about emissions reductions?

I’m asking because I have been really thinking hard about this for the last week or so.  It seems to me that the traditional way we go about the international response to climate change–negotiate a treaty to mandate various national emissions reductions that will include an enforcement mechanism so countries don’t cheat–might not only be almost impossible to do (witness the last 20 years of UN negotiations that have tried), but also defining the problem in an unhelpful way.  Focusing on mandated emissions reductions forces the international community into the box of a collective action problem over a joint public good.  In other words we define the problem as one where everyone emits greenhouse gases and we have to measurably restrict those in an enforceable way to solve the problem.  This fundamental definition of the problem actually creates many of the intractable debates we’ve seen in the last 20 years–how much to reduce, who is obligated to reduce, what should we do if someone fails to reduce.

What if we recast the climate change problem as one of revolutionizing the production of energy (essentially President Obama’s argument in the State of the Union) or decarbonizing transportation sectors or changing the nature of consumption? I’ll admit that I have yet to think through the implications of such a suggestion and it makes me uncomfortable, in some ways, to consider it.  Mandated, enforced restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions are enormously attractive as a (relatively) straightforward way to address the problem of climate change.  Yet, I find myself wondering if we could avoid some of the collective action problems that the international community has faced in the last two decades if we recast the problem.  I am not an apologist for those interests that obstruct the development of a legally binding treaty, and I am aware of the huge problems associated with leakage and freeriding if we fail to effectively mandate emission reductions from all major parties.  Yet, I cannot help think that we should consider ways in which the international community could switch the conception of the problem to one where there are incentives to cooperate (i.e. engender coordination effects) rather than conceptions of the problem that create obstacles to cooperation (collective action problems) that must be overcome. Naive perhaps, but more thought and energy might be fruitfully employed in conceiving of the political and economic dynamics of such a transition.

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