Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Climate change: green at the grass roots

The risks from climate change are serious enough to require grass-roots action, rather than waiting for a grand international agreement

Soon after US President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, leaders of many businesses, universities, states and cities said that they would continue to be committed to battling climate change. Their revolt is interesting because it opens up the possibility of a green strategy that begins from the bottom rather than the top. How effective will such a strategy be?

Climate change is the classic tragedy of the commons. Nobody owns environmental stability even though everybody depends on it. So everybody’s property is actually nobody’s property. The same dynamic that leads to the overgrazing of common grasslands or overfishing in the high seas also ensures that every person has an incentive to pollute even though the collective burden of such individual action can be catastrophic.

Almost all climate change mitigation strategies have focused on an international deal where governments commit their countries to specific targets. Can the problem be approached from the other end?

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for showing how ordinary people can create a framework of rules that help communities tackle the tragedy of the commons. A few days before she died in 2012, Ostrom wrote in an essay that has inspired the headline of this editorial: “We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive. We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly. Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at the city, subnational, national and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements. Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail."

It is important to note that Ostrom did not keep international agreements out of her list of agencies that should fight climate change. She did not mention companies either. But the underlying point is an interesting one. The risks from climate change are serious enough to require grass-roots action, rather than waiting for a grand international agreement. And it is equally true that only a binding international agreement can impose costs on countries that “defect".

The subnational challenge is also an important one. India is a classic case—a large country with lots of variations across states. India makes a national commitment to cap its carbon footprint, but does not distinguish between the industrialized states that pollute more than the average and the forested states that act as carbon sinks. There needs to be some mechanism for the former to compensate the latter—an issue that the Thirteenth Finance Commission headed by Vijay Kelkar tried to deal with.

The decision of US business, university, state and city leaders to remain committed to the fight against climate change despite the official position of their government on the Paris Agreement is a brave one. Such voluntary action, without binding rules that others will do the same, imposes costs on them. We do not believe that such decentralized action will do the job on its own. Some sort of omnibus international agreement is still needed owing to the inevitable coordination failures.

Yet there are profound possibilities. Large companies that commit to reducing their carbon footprint even in the absence of coercion can make a difference. So can cities that seek to shift from private cars to public transport. Regions with a history of environmental action can also change their energy mix to include more renewables.

None of these unilateral actions can ensure that others follow. The incentives for free rides are ever present—City X can continue to pollute while its neighbouring City Y decides to invest in public transport.

These are some issues that even Indian companies, states and cities need to grapple with. National climate change commitments are needed, but not everything can be driven from New Delhi. It is worth speculating whether we will see more voluntary action against climate change in India as well—all the more complicated because there is a parallel fight against mass poverty that requires the consumption of more energy.

Can the global community fight climate change even without an international agreement? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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