But it looks like it’s working?
Here’s why it looks good. From 1990 to 2011, China accounted for 89% of the increase in world coal use. Most of this happened from 2000 to 2011, and emissions accelerated. Then the climate scientists predicted future emissions. And that prediction looked grim. But China was overcome with smog and by 2014 had virtually stopped increasing its coal use. They wrote this change into their INDC, but it had nothing to do with the UN or the climate.
Now the EU and UN scientist are comparing the future to their grim post-2011 predictions, and see that things look better. So they conclude — it must be because of China’s INDC. But their INDC didn’t change anything. What the scientists are seeing is that their 2012 prediction was wrong. It was too high because it did not take account of the fact that countries can’t just keep ramping up coal use forever—there’s just too much smog. So rather than admit their mistake, they give China and the UN credit for power INDCs. That makes everyone happy, but it’s a dangerous con game.
The problem is that if we believe INDCs are making countries help to save the planet, then we will think that in 2030 perhaps INDCs can make them try even harder. But Christiana Figueres is right, “None of them are doing this to save the planet.” And in 2030 when they need to switch from increasing emissions to cutting emissions at 33% per decade, none of them are going to do take that far-more-difficult step to save the planet.
So why is there no “race to the top”?
The current negotiation scheme is “pledge and review,” and that is supposed to deliver “ambition.” But how is that supposed to work? There’s no real explanation, but it is often said that the “review” part will convince countries that others are ambitious, and this will lead to an “upward spiral of ambition,” or a “race to the top.”
However, the climate dilemma is just a particularly bad common-pool resource problem, and without the right kind of agreement, this leads inevitably to the tragedy of the commons — which is a race to the bottom, characterized by narrow self-interest instead of cooperation. And in fact, this is exactly what Christiana Figueres says has happened.
This dynamic has actually been tested hundreds of times over the last 40 years in laboratory experiments. Generally the players start out by cooperating about half as much as is optimal, but as they review each others contributions and pledge repeatedly, the level of cooperation declines to practically nothing. In the end, players are just acting in their narrow self-interest. There’s a downward spiral, a race to the bottom.
This is also the behavior that Elinor Ostrom (Nobel prize, 2009) has observed in hundreds of field studies from around the world. Her conclusion (in Governing the Commons, 1990) is that the keys to success are reciprocity and trust. This is necessary when there is no effective government to solve the problem — which is exactly the situation we face. Reciprocity and trust will create and upward spiral of ambition. You can read about this in more detail in the Introduction to Global Carbon Pricing (a free PDF). But the point here is that pledge and review provides very little reciprocity — because no one even thought about it. The shocking thing is that those designing these negotiations do not seem to even be aware that there is a huge scientific literature on this problem that spans political science, psychology and behavioral economics.
To learn a little about how to fix the problem, click here.