Meike Lohkamp

Thinking globally, acting locally

No country in the world can stop climate change on its own. But global solutions worked out in international negotiations often take a long time, perhaps too long to effectively help the climate. As Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom said, we can’t wait for that. What we need instead is efforts at different levels. And not only the climate would benefit.

Droughts and forest fires in Europe, flooding in Asia. This will be the backdrop when the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El Sheikh opens on November 7. As climate change progresses, its global impact is becoming ever more drastic and obvious. Correspondingly, the Climate Change Conference faces great expectations once again this year. At the global level, a lot of hopes for effective climate action are pinned on the conference of states that are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After all, a global climate policy is the stated aim of the Climate Change Conferences.

Individual countries and the international community often have divergent interests

Strategies and measures for climate action are agreed at the so-called COPs (Conferences of the Parties). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) compiles all findings related to climate research on a regular basis. In its latest assessment report, it emphasizes that successful climate action mainly depends on the willingness of individual countries to cooperate at the international level. However, the short-term interests of the countries are often in conflict with the shared long-term interests of the international community. For example, while the international community has an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, individual countries would prefer to first determine which country is responsible for how much of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is because according to the "polluter pays" principle, those who damage the climate should bear the costs of climate action. For example, this means that an industrialized country like Germany would have to pay more for climate action and mitigation measures than countries like India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, which emit fewer greenhouse gases. This is money the countries can’t spend on other things.

Fear of free riders

Some countries often wait to see what others will do. After all, no country wants to risk taking expensive measures that all states benefit from but that not all of them pay for. Such free riders are one of the reasons the collective goal of limiting global warming to 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, is in serious danger: It often takes a very long time before strategies and actions are actually implemented.

This problem is not restricted to climate issues. Other challenges that call for collective action, such as protecting biodiversity, also involve conflicting interests and free riders. Such collective action problems have been the focus of considerable attention since the 1965 publication of The Logic of Collective Action, a book by American economist Mancur Olson.

Near-term greenhouse gas reductions through efforts at lower levels

American political economist Elinor Ostrom, who became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, did not consider it advisable only to wait for global agreements on climate action because of such collective action problems. She proposed a different approach in which individuals, families, companies, communities and governments should change their behavior at various levels to also produce fewer greenhouse gases in the near term.  Decisions such as those “within families about the choice of transport, home insulation, and investments […] have small (but collectively important) effects on the world’s atmosphere,” wrote Ostrom

Global and local benefits of reduced emissions

According to Ostrom, reduced emissions are not only beneficial at the global level. They can also have benefits at other levels. Families with a climate-friendly lifestyle not only produce fewer greenhouse gases. They often save money, for example by using less electricity. Furthermore, Ostrom said such decisions by companies were of similar importance. According to the German Environment Agency, the operation of buildings accounts for about 35 percent of overall energy consumption and 30 percent of CO2 emissions, which are the largest component of greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that operate their buildings with low energy consumption save money while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. Other examples of multiple benefits cited by Ostrom include investments in better waste disposal facilities, measures to combat urban air pollution, and the reduction of subsidies for high-emission industries.

It remains to be seen whether a concrete working program to reduce emissions will adopted at this year’s COP as was agreed at the previous COP in Glasgow. All of us would benefit from – at home and worldwide.


Share article