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Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “Elinor Ostrom”

“Beyond Gridlock” Finds Enormous Potential in Private Emission Reduction Efforts

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Vanderbilt Professors Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan’s new article “Beyond Gridlock” (advance version available here, publication in the Columbia Environmental Law Journal in Summer 2015) finds enormous potential for carbon emissions reductions from voluntary private actions by businesses and households despite governmental gridlock.  Mobilizing such private initiatives could buy additional years to enact comprehensive national and international climate legislation and agreements before we reach a 2oC rise in global temperatures.

The authors examine a wide array of private initiatives, ranging from corporations requiring carbon-emission disclosures from the suppliers in their supply chain (as Walmart, Cisco, and Dell have done), to drivers shutting off their cars when they idle for more than 30 seconds, to a private climate registry wherein individuals can register their actions to prevent climate change for future generations.  They conclude that these and other private initiatives together could lead to a reduction in annual CO2 emissions worldwide of a gigaton or more.

Beyond Gridlock is an important counterweight to the excessively narrow focus of many in the climate movement on carbon pricing and other forms of governmental action.  Many sectors of society are ready, willing, and able to make major reductions in their carbon footprint without any governmental involvement whatsoever.  Corporations, foundations, and people concerned about climate change should deploy their creativity, resources, and energy towards voluntary efforts now, regardless of what our politicians are doing (or not doing) on climate.

The authors suggest that private action may accelerate the likelihood of government action, by enlisting broader participation in the climate mitigation effort, and by reducing the negative impacts of a carbon tax on businesses and individuals.

Beyond Gridlock points the way to further research.  What conditions activate dormant citizens and corporations to reduce their carbon footprint? What can foundations, universities, advocacy organizations, and others do to promote and support private action?  What role can local, state, and even the federal government play in expanding it?  How can a culture of private action be fomented?

Beyond Gridlock is an important work because it marks a path for citizens and organizations to realize major reductions in CO2 emissions despite a gridlocked political system.

(Coming soon: Interview with Beyond Gridlock author Michael Vandenbergh)

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Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

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Worldwide annual CO2 emissions are about 35 billion tons and rising.  So what difference does it make if I ride my bike to work every day to avoid 5 tons of emissions this year, or if decide not to make that family trip to Hawaii because of the 20 tons of CO2 it will emit?  Even if I do make these sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint, China’s emissions are increasing so fast that they will cancel my reductions out by a factor of millions.  I might as well just live my life and hope that our governments deal with the problem, or that a new technology comes along just in time to save the day.  And even if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes unlivable, there is nothing that I could have done about it.

Even for people deeply concerned about climate change, these attitudes are widespread and rational.  Why make a personal sacrifice when its effect on overall climate is negligible?  Even though my children and I would benefit from a cleaner atmosphere, we, and a billion other families, will get that benefit regardless of whether or not I personally “green up my act.”

Similar calculations are made by individuals, companies, industries, and countries the world over, and represent a major barrier to action on climate change.  No one wants to sacrifice unless everyone else is sacrificing, and many would prefer to be a “free rider” on sacrifices made by others.   Economists and social scientists refer to the refusal of individuals to give up a small individual benefit for a large collective benefit as a “collective action problem” or the “tragedy of the commons.”

Because of the widespread belief that the collective action problem makes voluntary approaches to carbon reduction impractical (or that focus on individual voluntary action will reduce pressure for institutional change), much of the focus on addressing carbon emissions has been on achieving global-level climate accords or national-level actions such as a federal carbon tax.  These supra-national or national-level efforts promised to avoid the collective action problem by imposing binding quotas and restrictions by ensuring that the sacrifice is borne by all.  Unfortunately, international climate negotiations and national carbon taxes have borne little fruit (in large part because of collective action problems occurring at the national and international levels.) Read more…

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