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From Top-Down to Bottom-Up: New Directions for Climate at Rio+20

by Kristen Sheeran • June 21, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

In 2009, I published a book with Graciela Chichilnisky, Saving Kyoto (New Holland 2009), that argued passionately for preserving the economic and political architecture of the only international treaty on climate change the world has known – the Kyoto Protocol. The book was timely: the countdown to compliance with Kyoto’s mandated emissions targets had begun; the international community was gathering that year in Copenhagen to negotiate the next round of climate commitments; and there was hope that the Obama administration could usher the U.S. back to the negotiating table in earnest. More importantly from my perspective, however, was the growing realization that the window of opportunity for stabilizing the earth’s climate system was rapidly coming to a close. The urgency of the crisis demanded immediate, extensive emissions reductions. And I firmly believed that a coordinated international effort that mandated reductions from world’s largest emitters was the fairest and most efficient way to stave off climate disaster.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the international governance framework that eventually gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. As the global community convenes again this week in Rio to establish goals and strategies for sustainable development for the next 20 years, its failures to arrest climate change over the last 20 years will be hard to deny. But it will also be hard to ignore the real energy, innovation, and progress around climate change that is emerging from the ground up all over the world. The examples are many, including Germany’s aggressive use of feed-in tariffs that is helping to drive down the costs of solar technology worldwide; the commitments of cities across the globe to redesigning their infrastructure, planning, and policies to dramatically slash emissions; and the emergence of regional emissions reduction schemes, such as California’s AB32 and the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Even private industry is taking positive leaps forward toward embracing energy savings and preparing for future uncertainties around climate change and global energy prices (more…)

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Tribute to Elinor Ostrom

by Guest • June 12, 2012 @ 8:29 am

By Gernot Wagner, Environmental Defense Fund

Economists typically aren’t known for being nuanced. They are known, though, for responding to incentives. So perhaps this should change things: in 2009, Elinor Ostrom shared a Nobel Prize in economics for looking at exactly the question of what happens in between the two extremes: the tuna’s global free for all and the straw man of all-private, all-the-time. The Nobel citation commended her “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

Her analysis applies to anything from Maine lobstermen to Swiss Alpine pastures to small forests in India, irrigation rights in Spain and the Philippines and umpteen other cases. Ostrom set out to find patterns across these disparate cases. At first, she was looking to deduce a blueprint, a single rule. That was harder than it looks.

Bear with me. Ostrom won a Nobel for her nuance for a reason.

She identified six common themes of what works and what doesn’t.  First and foremost, avoiding the tragedy of the commons takes well-defined territories. Maine’s lobster gangs definitely share that feature. Anyone who violates the boundaries of their own lobstering ground might find their lobster traps cut or their outhouses burning. Even Hardin’s pastures should have clear boundaries: fences, usually, or other natural limits. Second, she found a rough link between the costs and benefits of the rules of the game. If lobstermen felt that sticking to their gangs’ edicts didn’t provide them with appropriate personal benefits, gangs would quickly fall apart. Self-interest still rules the day. Similarly, and point number three, everyone wants a say in setting up the rules. Not everyone’s advice will be heeded, but everyone at the very least will be heard. That’s not just an act in futile pseudo-democracy; it’s key for keeping everyone on board and committed. Fourth on Ostrom’s list is monitoring. Someone ought to keep track of what’s going on. That could either be the unelected gang kings or the duly elected head of the local Lobstermen’s Association. In either case, he or she needs to draw their authority by cultivating the respect of everyone involved, and also provide a forum for grievances, another one of Ostrom’s points. Which leaves us with her sixth: There must be sanctions for violations of any kind. These can’t be too exorbitant at first but ought to be increasingly stiff for repeat offenders. Three strikes and you are banished from the harbor.

Preventing the tragedy of the commons turns out to be a messy business. Systems that combine private efforts, public governance and communities of various shapes and sizes tend to manage resources best. And it’s often the community function that has the biggest influence.

Maine lobstermen don’t just compete with each other once to catch as many lobsters as possible for themselves. They face each other season after season and also in other walks of life, whether at the market, at their kids’ school, or in church.

The key word in all of this is “manage.” Garrett Hardin, Mr. Global Commons Problem, by now has acknowledged as much. Thirty years after his article that caused the original stir, he wrote a follow-up for Science in 1998, in which he declared his “weightiest mistake” to be “the omission of the modifying adjective ‘unmanaged.’” The tragedy of the unmanaged commons makes ruin inevitable. Although here again, he manages to present the solution as an either-or: the choice is between “socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.” If you like to describe Maine harbor gangs as “socialist,” fine. I have a feeling that they would strongly disagree and may even back up their verbal disagreement with decidedly non-social behavior.

The true system of checks and balances that keeps the system afloat is much more nuanced than that. It is “polycentric,” to use Ostrom’s Nobel-winning term.

The crucial question now becomes which kinds of commons can be managed—whether mafia-style as with Maine’s harbor gangs or in slightly less dramatic settings like Alpine pastures or ancient irrigation systems that have been managed successfully for many centuries? The example of the factory upstream and the pollution victim downstream is on one end of the spectrum. That’s Ronald Coase and Garrett Hardin’s territory. Maine lobster grounds are somewhere in the middle. That’s where Ostrom shines.

And shine she did. Only today, her latest analysis appeared about why cities can and must show the way on climate, Rio+20′s ambitious (and necessary) global goals notwithstanding.



Desert Year:$3 Trillion Thought Experiment for Rio+20

by Skip Laitner • June 7, 2012 @ 6:48 am

Because I roam the desert a lot, the UV Index is something I pay attention to.  It is an international standard that measures the strength of ultraviolet radiation from the sun at a given time and place. Canada was the first to adopt such an index in 1992. The U.S. followed in 1994, as have any subsequent number of countries since that time.  Today the World Health Organization (WHO) has standardized the UV Index by replacing the many different regional methods that otherwise provided an inconsistent set of results.

A UV index of zero is essentially a nighttime reading.  An index of 10 (highlighted by the color red) roughly corresponds to the midday sun beating down on the earth through a clear sky.  Here on the desert we often hit the extreme, at noon, with index of 11.  That is the color purple and not really all that uncommon.  And as I reflected on the thought experiment I am about to describe, yes, I was out on the desert floor at roughly the time when the UV Index hit purple.

Knowing my exposure, I suspect some are likely to think that the intense sunshine will explain my estimate of a $3 trillion loss to the U.S. economy. But, I was properly protected and not really outside for all that long. And if we step back to think about it, that very big number may prove a useful metric to help us understand the huge economic opportunities that await us – should we begin to think big about energy efficiency. And I discuss all of this in the context of the 2012 Earth Summit to be convened in Rio later this month. (more…)

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