At the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, world political and business leaders are meeting to discuss pressing economic issues of the day. This year, one of the key themes is climate change and “how to save the planet”.
The approaches of leaders to the climate crisis, however, differ enormously. At the one extreme there are those who deny that emissions have caused climate change, or who reluctantly acknowledge climate change but think that governments need to do nothing and that technological advances in green energy and transport will be sufficient to curb global warming. This has been the approach of President Trump, President Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. They may claim to support the general goals of reducing greenhouse gases, but are keen to protect their coal and oil industries and, in the case of Brazil, to continue cutting down the Amazon rain forest to support mining, ranching and the growing of crops.
At his speech at the WEF, President Trump said that he supported the initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide to act as a carbon sink. However, he gave no details of just what the nature of the support would be. Would there be subsidies or tax breaks, for example, for landowners to plant trees? In the meantime, his administration has relaxed regulations to curb air and water pollution. And he has withdrawn the USA from the Paris climate agreement.
Other leaders, urged on by activists, such as Greta Thunberg, have talked about tougher action to tackle emissions. Countries such as Canada, Norway and the EU countries have adopted a number of initiatives. Policies range from taxing emissions, capping/regulating emissions with penalities for those breaching the limits, tradable permits, subsidising green alternatives, setting local emissions targets with incentives for meeting them, investing in green infrastructure such as roadside charging points for electric vehicles, making environmental education part of a national curriculum, investing in public transport, and so on. But, say, activists, only large-scale measures that truly recognise the scale of the climate emergency will be sufficient.
The year starts with climate being addressed at Davos; it ends with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year it will be in Glasgow. There is much hope pinned on this conference, given the growing realisation of the effects of climate change, from bush fires in Australia, to floods in Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia, to more extreme hurricanes/typhoons, to rapidly melting glaciers and retreating sea ice, to rising sea levels, to crop failures and the displacement of humans and the destruction of wildlife and habitat.
COP25 in Madrid made little progress; it is hoped that COP26 will be much more successful. Sir David Attenborough has warned that the world faces a ‘climate crisis moment’. He hopes that the world will be ready to take much stronger action at COP26.
But there remains the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. As long as the atmosphere and other parts of the environment are free to ‘use’ to pollute, and as long as the costs of doing so are borne largely by people other than the direct polluters, the market will fail to provide a solution. Australia’s bush fires can be directly attributed to climate change and climate change is exacerbated by coal-fired power stations. But Australia’s use of coal as a power source is only a tiny contributor to global climate change. Presumably, the Australian government would rather get a ‘free ride’ off other countries’ policies to cut emissions rather than bearing the economic cost of reducing coal-fired generation itself for little gain in terms of reduced global emissions.
However, people are not entirely selfish. Many are willing to make personal sacrifices to lead a more environmentally sustainable life. Many people, for example, are choosing electricity tariffs that are slightly higher but where the electricity is generated with zero carbon emissions. Firms have shown a readiness to respond to demands from their consumers for more sustainable products.
- Five essential steps to take right now to tackle climate change
- Davos: Trump decries climate ‘prophets of doom’ with Thunberg in audience
- Greta Thunberg clashes with US treasury secretary in Davos
- Australia, your country is burning – dangerous climate change is here with you now
- Climate change: What different countries are doing around the globe to tackle the crisis
- How we can combat climate change
- Sir David Attenborough warns of climate ‘crisis moment’
- Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help
- Ten facts about the economics of climate change and climate policy
- The Federal Reserve Considers the Economics of Climate Change in 2020
- Bernie Sanders’ economic adviser says Australia’s bushfires are a climate change ‘wake-up call’
- Carbon pricing: What the research says
- European Parliament backs Green Deal
- Tackling climate change
- Tragedy of the Commons: A Drama That Our Planet Is Not Enjoying
World Economic Forum, Robin Pomeroy (17/1/20)
BBC News (21/1/20)
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (23/1/20)
The Conversation, Michael E Mann (10/1/20)
Independent, Zoe Tidman (20/9/19)
Washington Post (2/1/19)
BBC News, David Shukman (16/1/20)
BBC News (14/1/20)
Brookings, Ryan Nunn, Jimmy O’Donnell, Jay Shambaugh, Lawrence H. Goulder, Charles D Kolstad and Xianling Long (23/10/19)
Lawfare, Rachel Westrate (16/1/20)
The Guardian, Ben Butler (7/1/20)
Journalist’s Resource, Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, Clark Merrefield (17/1/20)
Resource Media, Imogen Benson (17/1/20)
Committee on Climate change
Felix, Xiuchen Xu (9/12/19)
- Draw a diagram to show how the external costs of carbon emissions cause a more than socially optimal output of products emitting CO2.
- What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? Give some environmental examples.
- Discuss possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons.
- Why was COP25 generally regarded as a failure?
- Identify four possible policies that governments could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and discuss their relative advantages and disadvantages.
- Are meetings such as the annual World Economic Forum meetings at Davos of any benefit other than to the politicians attending? Explain.