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A changing climate for a deal?

The Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) is under way. At the opening on November 30, 150 Heads of State gathered in Paris, most of whom addressed the conference. With representatives from 195 countries and observers from a range of organisations, the conference is set to last until 11 December. Optimism is relatively high that a legally binding and universal agreement will be reached, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C – what is generally regarded as a ‘safe’ limit.

But although it is hoped that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 will be put in place, there are many problems in getting so many countries to agree. They may all wish to reduce global warming, but there is disagreement on how it should be achieved and how the burden should be shared between countries.

There are several difficult economic issues in the negotiations. The first is the size and impact of the external costs of emissions. When a country burns fossil fuels, the benefits are almost entirely confined to residents of that county. However, the environmental costs are largely external to that country and only a relatively small fraction is borne by that country and hardly at all by the polluters themselves, unless there is a carbon tax or other form or penalty in place. The problem is that the atmosphere is a common resource and without collective action – national or international – it will be overused.

The second problem is one of distribution. Politicians may agree in principle that a solution is necessary which is equitable between nations, but there is considerable disagreement on what is meant by ‘equitable’ in this context. As the third Guardian article below puts it:

The most important hurdle could be over whether industrialised countries like the US, UK and Japan, which have contributed the most to the historical build-up of emissions, should be obliged to cut more than developing countries. India, on behalf of many poor countries, will argue that there must be “differentiation” between rich and poor; but the US wants targets that are applicable to all. A collision is inevitable.

A third problem is that of uncertainty. Although there is general agreement among scientists that human action is contributing to global warming, there is less agreement on the precise magnitude of the causal relationships. There is also uncertainty over the likely effects of specific emissions reductions. This uncertainty can then be used by governments which are unwilling to commit too much to emissions reductions.

A fourth difficulty arises from the intertemporal distribution of costs and benefits of emissions reductions. The costs are born immediately action is taken. Carbon taxes or charges, or subsidies to renewables, or caps on emissions, all involve higher energy prices and/or higher taxes. The flows of benefits (or lower costs), however, of reduced emissions are not likely to be fully experienced for a very long time. But governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, tend to have a relatively short time horizon, governed by the electoral cycle or the likelihood of staying in power. True, governments may not be solely concerned with power and many politicians may have genuine desires to tackle climate change, but their political survival is still likely to be a major determinant of their actions.

Of course, if there is strong public opinion in favour of action to reduce emissions, governments are likely to respond to this. Indeed, all the expressions of public support for action ahead of the conference from all around the world, do give some hope for a strong agreement at the Paris conference. Nevertheless, there is still widespread scepticism in many countries over the relationship between human action and climate change, and many argue that the costs of policies to tackle climate change exceed the benefits.

Game theory can shed some insights into the difficulties ahead for the negotiators. The global optimum may be for a strong agreement, binding on all countries. The Nash equilibrium, however, may be a situation where countries push for their own interests at the expense of others, with the final agreement being much more minimalistic.

There do, however, seem to be more reasons to be cheerful at this summit that at previous ones. But negotiations are likely to be hard and protracted over the coming days.

Videos and webcasts
Paris Climate Conference: The Big Picture Wall Street Journal on YouTube, Jason Bellini (30/11/15)
Why is the Paris UN climate summit important? PwC, Leo Johnson (14/10/15)
Paris climate change summit 2015: ‘the near impossible task’ Channel 4 News on YouTube, Tom Clarke (30/11/15)
COP21: Rallies mark start of Paris climate summit BBC News, David Shukman (29/11/15)
With climate at ‘breaking point’, leaders urge breakthrough in Paris Reuters, Bruce Wallace and Alister Doyle (1/12/15)
COP21: Paris conference could be climate turning point, says Obama BBC News (30/11/15)
Leaders meet to reach new agreement on climate change BBC News, David Shukman (30/11/15)
Poll: Growing Doubts Over Climate Change Causes Sky News, Thomas Moore (30/11/15)
Paris climate protesters banned but 10,000 shoes remain The Guardian (29/11/15)

COP-21 climate deal in Paris spells end of the fossil era The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (29/11/15)
Is there an economic case for tackling climate change? BBC News, Andrew Walker (28/11/15)
World Leaders in Paris Vow to Overcome Divisions on Climate Change Wall Street Journal, William Horobin and William Mauldin (30/11/15)
Experts discuss how to build a carbon-free energy industry The Guardian, Tim Smedley (25/11/15)
Africa could lead world on green energy, says IEA head The Guardian, Anna Leach (11/11/15)
Climate change talks: five reasons to be cheerful or fearful The Guardian, John Vidal (30/11/15)
The Paris climate change summit, explained in 4 charts The Washington Post, Philip Bump (30/11/15)
Why This Goal To Curb Climate Change ‘Is Not Ideal’ Huffington Post, Jacqueline Howard (30/11/15)
Paris climate change talks: What the different groups attending expect from these crucial meetings Independent, Tom Bawden (29/11/15)
UN Climate Change Conference: World Leaders Call For Price On CO2 Emissions Despite Uphill Battle At Paris Summit International Business Times, Maria Gallucci (30/11/15)
World Bank, six nations call for a price on carbon SBS (Australia) (1/12/15)
Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (3/12/15)


  1. Why is COP21 considered to be so significant?
  2. For what reasons is there hope for a binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C?
  3. What would be the effect on global warming of the commitments made by more than 180 countries prior to the conference?
  4. What market failings contribute towards the problem of global warming?
  5. Why, if all countries want to achieve a binding agreement at the Paris conference, is it likely to be so difficult to achieve?
  6. Explain what is meant by a ‘Nash equilibrium’ and how the concept is relevant to international negotiations.
  7. Why is China investing heavily in solar power?
  8. Could Africa lead the world in green energy?
  9. Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
  10. What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?
  11. How does the structure/order of the Paris conference differ from previous COPs? Is such a structure more likely to achieve substantial results?
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