Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Working Paper #82
January 28, 2009
Effective strategies for managing the dangers of global climate change are proving very difficult to design and implement. They require governments to undertake a portfolio of costly efforts that yield uncertain benefits far in the future. That portfolio includes tasks such as putting a price on carbon and devising complementary regulations to encourage firms and individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. It includes correcting for the tendency for firms to under-invest in the public good of new technologies and knowledge that will be needed for achieving cost-effective and deep cuts in emissions. And it also includes investments to help societies prepare for a changing climate by adapting to new climates and also readying "geoengineering" systems in case they are needed. Many of those efforts require international coordination that has proven especially difficult to mobilize and sustain because international institutions are usually weak and thus unable to force collective action. All these dimensions of climate diplomacy are the subject of my larger book project and a host of complementary research here at the Program on Energy & Sustainable Development.
By far, the most important yet challenging aspect of international climate policy has been to encourage developing countries to contribute to this portfolio of efforts. Those nations, so far, have been nearly universal in their refusal to make credible commitments to reduce growth in their emissions of greenhouse gases for two reasons. First, most put a higher priority on economic growth-even at the expense of distant, global environmental goods. That's why the developing country governments that have signaled their intention to slow the rise in their emissions have offered policies that differ little from what they would have done anyway to promote economic growth. Second, the governments of the largest and most rapidly developing countries-such as China and India-actually have little administrative ability to control emissions in many sectors of their economy. Even if they adopted policies to control emissions it is not clear that firms and local governments would actually follow.