Nationally self-interested climate change mitigation: a unified conceptual framework

Domestic economic gains from action to tackle climate change include improved air quality, increased energy efficiency, and clean technology innovation ‘spillovers’ says this paper released today by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and London School of Economics

Social scientists have long assumed that actions by states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions are not in their self-interest because the domestic costs outweigh the domestic benefits and they can “free-ride” on the emissions reductions achieved by others states. Climate change action, on this logic, is a global “tragedy of the commons” and “prisoner’s dilemma”. While this view is increasingly being challenged by theory and evidence suggesting that much mitigation action would be in states’ self-interest, this emerging literature is fragmented and has not succeeded in overturning the traditional assumptions, at least not in key social science reference works such as the reports of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This paper seeks to rectify this problem by developing a unified conceptual framework for advancing and evaluating claims about the extent of mitigation action that could be done in states’ self-interest, defined (for the sake of facilitating debate) in terms of economic efficiency. The paper concludes that there is a strong prima facie case that the majority of the emissions reductions needed to decarbonise the global economy can be achieved in ways that are nationally net-beneficial to countries, even leaving aside the climate benefits. Accordingly, the default assumption in social science scholarship should be that actions to reduce emissions are nationally net-beneficial. The barriers to mitigation action lie, primarily, not in the macro-incentive structures of states (i.e. climate action is, mostly, not a tragedy of the commons / prisoner’s dilemma) but rather within the domestic sphere, at the intersection of domestic interests, institutions and ideas formed in the fossil fuel age.