Growth debate 1: Time to stop fouling our nest

Gareth Clubb asks whether the time has come for personal carbon trading to tackle climate change

Anyone who has studied natural resource management will have Garret Hardin’s theory of the Tragedy of the Commons imprinted on their brain. The example Hardin used in 1968 to exemplify his theory runs something like this:

  1. Picture a pasture that is common land, available for twenty herdsmen to graze their cattle.
  2. Acting rationally, it is in each individual herdsman’s best interests to maximise the number of cattle he grazes. This is because for each head of cattle added, the benefit (+1.00) is individual to the herdsman, while the disbenefit (in terms of overgrazing and degradation of the pasture) is shared among all herdsmen (-1/20 or -0.05).
  3. The only sensible conclusion of each herdsman is that he should add another animal to his herd, with a net benefit of 0.95. And then another, and another…
  4. But this same conclusion is reached by every other herdsman sharing the commons, each acting rationally.

“Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.


Welsh economy needs a shove

John Osmond asks whether we should be putting ‘green’ aspirations on the back burner while we catch up with the rest of the UK. On Saturday Calvin Jones and Martin M. Jones argue that our future relies on learning to live with the sunshine that comes today.

Less well known to most students is that Garret Hardin extended his metaphor to pollution:

“Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in – sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air, and distracting and un-pleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest’, so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers”.

There is no commons greater in import and abundance than our atmosphere, oceans and climate. But the abundance of that commons has misled humanity into thinking that it can absorb unlimited pollution in the form of greenhouse gas emissions. We are indeed locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest’.

The tragedy of the climate commons appears to hold true at both an individual level and a nation state level. As rational actors, why should individuals voluntarily curb their excesses? There are plenty of people for whom the weekend trip to Barcelona or Prague is part of their full enjoyment of life. After all, the plane is going anyway, and one person’s contribution makes no difference in the face of China’s coal-fired power stations, doesn’t it?

The problem is that every person who has the means to consume excessively has the same incentive to increase their personal utility while sharing the burden of their consumption over the 7 billion inhabitants of the planet. So going back to our equation for the herdsmen, the net benefit for our wealthy consumer is +1, because the shared disbenefit of 1/7,000,000,000 is as good as nil.

And at a nation state level, increased consumption by the population (represented by GDP) is commonly conflated as benefit. Why would a nation state – at least, one with a government seeking re-election – want to reduce benefit for its own citizens when the disbenefit of excess consumption is shared between 193 nation states. Net benefit for each single state? 0.995.

Almost inherent in the definition of tragedy is inevitability. Does that mean that the climate tragedy is inevitable? We can look back at 1968 for some of the answers.

“We have several options. We might sell [commons] off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to [use] them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might be on the basis of merit, as defined by some agreed-upon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all the reasonable possibilities. They are all objectionable. But we must choose – or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons”.

There are good reasons to rule out most of these options as impracticable or manifestly unfair. But one which has a tantalising degree of implicit fairness is an allocation for use, but based not on wealth, auctions or lottery. It would be based on our existence as one of 7 billion people with equal right to use that commons, and acknowledging the rights of future generations to be able to enjoy the benefits of a benign climate.

It’s called personal carbon trading. People who use less carbon (in the form of electricity, gas and petrol) can sell their allowances to those who want to use more than their equal share. And the total amount of carbon emitted is in the control of government, which will bring down the emissions in line with science. Back in 2008 the Environmental Audit Committee had this to say about personal carbon trading:

“If the Government is to stand the slightest chance of meeting its 2050 carbon emissions target it cannot afford to neglect the domestic and personal sector. Reductions in carbon emissions from business and industry will be meaningless unless accompanied by significant and equal reductions from households and individuals. Existing initiatives are unlikely to bring about behavioural change on the scale required, with many individuals choosing to disregard the connection between their own emissions and the larger challenge. Personal carbon trading might be the kind of radical measure needed to bring about behavioural change”.

It’s a mechanism that has inherent appeal for people of a right-leaning persuasion because it’s a market based system with trading. And it’s a mechanism that has inherent appeal to those of a left-leaning persuasion, because fairness is built-in. Poor people, who are responsible for less carbon emissions than rich people, would receive payment from rich people for the right to use their excess allowances. A progressive control mechanism, disbursing wealth from those who have it to those who don’t.

With the limits on the Welsh Government’s ability to legislate and regulate in this area, we’re left with the UK Government to implement a policy that is one of the only ways to ensure humanity doesn’t breach the critical 2oC climate threshold. And will the UK Government act? Well, that’s down to people like you and me. The climate crisis means we need to take every opportunity to let politicians of all persuasions and at all levels know the importance of radical action now. The alternative would be the realization of Garret Hardin’s depressing prophesy:

“We must choose – or acquiesce in the destruction of the [climate] commons”.

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru.

15 thoughts on “Growth debate 1: Time to stop fouling our nest

  1. Oh dear Gareth, Adam Smith gone mad and global.
    Let’s embed inequality into the Climate Change agenda.
    What a recipe for disaster on Gaia.
    The real comment/trueism is here “With the limits on the Welsh Government’s ability to legislate and regulate in this area, we’re left with the UK Government to implement a policy that is one of the only ways to ensure humanity doesn’t breach the critical 2oC climate threshold.”

    Surely we should be removing these limits and then electing a government which wishes to take action in Wales.
    The words “Limits to Growth” meaning morally and ethically in Wales have never rung truer.

  2. Hi Alun, I don’t understand your comment “Adam Smith gone mad and global. Let’s embed inequality into the Climate Change agenda. What a recipe for disaster on Gaia” – I’d be grateful if you could elaborate.
    Personal carbon trading is one of the only ways we can guarantee meeting our climate change targets.
    If by use of the word Gaia you’re suggesting that the earth will self-regulate (a la then you should probably re-acquaint yourself with the climate science.

  3. There are quite literally hundreds of factors that influence global temperature, everything from tilt of the earth’s axis to ocean cycles to water vapour, methane, solar system, the sun, cloud feedback, and volcanic dust. Peer-reviewed studies show the Medieval and Roman warming periods as warm or warmer than today, and evidence shows these were world wide phenomena. We’ve had 16 years with no warming. In the geological past, there have been warmer times when there was less CO2 than now, and colder periods when there was more.

    The sun is very quiet at a time when it should be moving towards a sun spot max. Indeed, we seem to be moving into a 30 cooling phase and with a little bit of luck the increase in CO2 may help to mitigate this and perhaps stop us falling into the next, long overdue Ice Age. Not that any of this excuses us from wasting resources, whatever they are but I don’t think that Gareth helps his cause by overstating his case, though I suppose he doesn’t see it that way.

  4. The concept of personal carbon trading has many draws, as you rightly point out, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. However a major caveat to apply to any notion of a personal carbon allowance is that in order to allow us to achieve a maximum 2C rise in global temperatures the global average carbon allowance would necessarily be FAR below that average carbon footprint of the average Welsh citizen today. This opens up the pandoras box on the notions of fairness and proportionality. Would the UK/Welsh citizen have an allowance that is 1/7bn of our annual global carbon budget? How to allow carbon trading between citizens in well-connected democracies of the West with less well connected communities in farther-flung corners of the Earth. I am sure a prosperous industry of middle men and women would be eager to facilitate such transactions – all for a cut of the price, of course. Caveat, hic dragones!

  5. Colin Miles, are you willing to found a new community for like-minded climate change deniers and heroically accept the consequences of the absurdities of your answers? Allow the rest of rational society to get on with addressing an issue which has the potential to be the end of civilisation as we know it…

  6. Martin – of course climate change happens, all the time throughout the ages. No-one is denying that. However, the reasons are far more complicated than the simple one of just CO2 emissions. Even if it were it would be far more sensible to adapt rather than deny reality. Whatever we do in Wales or the UK, or indeed throughout most of the world, whether through personal or other action, will have no effect whilst China and many other developing countries continue on their present courses of action. And we cannot prevent this, even if it were morally acceptable to do so.

  7. Let not pursuit of the best drive out the good eh? I’m sure we’d all like to ban excessive emissions behaviours (none of us good people fly I’m sure) but until we have the political space to even raise that one, debating the merits of a carbon trading scheme seems a reasonable pursuit.

    The trick would be to make sure gross permit allocation matched the science of a 2 degree target. Unlike the poor old EU ETS…

  8. While some may feel that the causes of climate change are still open to debate, the evidence for the inevitable future decline of oil availability is a lot less ambiguous. If we want our children to have a future that is close to being as comfortable as ours, we must identify alternative sources of energy (and, in my view, avoid going down the highly uncertain nuclear-power path). And of course the fact that the use of renewables will reduce CO2 emissions makes their adoption even more urgent.

    We must act with simple intelligence on this fundamental issue of energy generation, which is the foundation on which every aspect of our economy and culture is built – including the essential activity of food production. (If we go back to growing food in soil instead of oil – in the form of agricultural chemicals applied to an essentially dead land – we will be taking a significant step in the right direction. As oil production declines and the cost of oil continues to rise, sustainable options will become more economically attractive. Therein lies some hope for future moves towards keeping a cleaner “nest” – although we seem to be about to ‘frack it up’ some more, first!

  9. A quick google search revealed a few academic papers on this subject, I haven’t really read any in detail yet but this quote caught my eye…
    “2.1 Economic rationale
    The economic rationale behind carbon trading is fairly straightforward and empirically well
    established, at least in terms of neo-classical economic theory (see Dales, 1968, Baumol
    and Oates, 1971).”

    Nor did I find any research outside of the U.K. and all the proponents are either from Business or the Labour Party.
    Apart from theoretical misgivings about measures based on financial speculation models to amend human behaviour, this limited and neo liberal/classical support rings all sorts of alarm bells.
    Have you or anybody else read a broad range of the academic research?

  10. Colin, you’re not saying anything new. The claims you’re making in your comments have been repeated ad nauseum in the echo chamber that is the blogosphere. If they had any validity, do you not think the scientific community would have picked up on their mistakes? I will try herein to answer your concerns, point by point.

    “There are quite literally hundreds of factors that influence global temperature, everything from tilt of the earth’s axis to ocean cycles to water vapour, methane, solar system, the sun, cloud feedback, and volcanic dust.”

    While there are hundreds of mechanisms that can affect the Earth’s climate, there are only a few which can force the climate to change in any meaningful, long-term way. Climatologists have been well aware of all the mechanisms you mention for decades now, and are able to accurately input each of them (with the exception of the effect of clouds) into climatological models to determine the culprit of the current change in climate. Thankfully, however, we don’t need a complex climate model to demonstrate the validity of the idea that it is the greenhouse effect that is forcing the climate to change; a simple process of elimination will suffice. As you’ve acknowledged, solar activity is decreasing, and has been since the middle of the last century. In the same period, temperatures have risen by over half a degree. Solar activity is not forcing this change in climate. The past fifty years has not been a particularly eventful time for volcanic eruptions (in fact it’s been distinctly quiet), so volcanic emissions of greenhouse gases are not the culprit. The Milankovitch Cycles – those cycles in the Earth’s orbit and axis that you mention – occur over far too long timescales to be forcing this change in climate, and in any case should, in the long term, be sending us back into another ice age, not warming us up. There is only one factor which has significantly changed over the past century which has the potential to bring about a change in climate – anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

    “Peer-reviewed studies show the Medieval and Roman warming periods as warm or warmer than today, and evidence shows these were world wide phenomena. ”

    It is fair to say that the evidence for the Medieval Warm Period being a worldwide phenomenon is quite strong nowadays and getting stronger. However, I know of no peer-reviewed studies that suggest the MWP was warmer than today. Every temperature reconstruction that I have seen (and I’ve seen quite a lot of them) show that modern temperatures exceed the temperature maximum of the MWP quite significantly. If you wish to pursue this argument I will have to ask you to cite the papers you are referring to. Feel free to check the temperature reconstructions by Moberg (2005), Loehle (2008), Ljungqvist (2010) and of course Michael Mann’s much maligned efforts (2008), all of which agree that today’s temperatures exceed those of the MWP.

    “We’ve had 16 years with no warming.”

    Incorrect. The long-term trend in global average temperature is still upward. This is what you see in the data:

    This is what any person keen to take an unbiased, objective view would see in the data:

    You’re trying to go down the up escalator.

    “In the geological past, there have been warmer times when there was less CO2 than now, and colder periods when there was more.”

    Absolutely true. Again, this is something that climatologists are well aware of. As you have said yourself in your comment, there are a number of mechanisms that can bring about a change in climate, and the greenhouse effect has not always been the dominant factor. I cannot see, however, how you have come to the conclusion that this change in climate cannot be driven by anthropogenic greenhouse gases because other changes in climate weren’t. It’s a non-sequitur.

  11. Hi Alun,
    The fact that personal carbon trading hasn’t been tried elsewhere doesn’t mean it’s not a valid pursuit. That’s presumably also one of the reasons for the paucity of research on it. By their nature, innovations have to start somewhere. The RSA ran a trial a while back – you can see their conclusions here:

    The fact that proponents are “either from Business or the Labour Party” is, again, no substantive reason for dismissing the idea.

  12. Rhys – a bit difficult to know where to begin. But let’s start with your comment ‘solar activity is decreasing, and has been since the middle of the last century.’ No – Solar activity was increasing and it is only in the last few years that it has been decreasing to such an extent that there is the possibility that the next Solar cycle will either not appear, or be very low. As for the idea that climatologists can accurately input data to the computer models, as an amateur meteorologist, astronomer and someone who has programmed for nigh on 50 years I can tell you that this is mere wishful thinking. And the sad fact is that the only way that the models have been able to make any semblance of keeping up with reality is by retro-fitting them. A test of any scientific theory or proposition is that a prediction is made and you then see how it works out. If right everything is hunky-dory, if not then the initial premise is wrong in some way – Simples.

    With regard to the Medieval Warm period, the latest evidence from Northern China is backing up the already strong evidence that is was indeed a worldwide event and that it was as strong, if not stronger than that of the late 20th century. Yes – CO2 can have an effect. No-one is doubting that. But the extent of it and the strength of other factors such the variation in the Solar output which are beginning to look as if they may well be stronger. As for the various cycles, there is evidence for many shorter ones, 30 – 70 – 400, all of which may combine in ways that are currently not fully understood. Some of them may relate to Solar output.

    Unfortunately, as in many areas of life, economic necessity means that it is easier for many to go along with the consensus, even when the evidence looks shaky. And nowadays we are too anxious to take action before that evidence is fully understood. It will be interesting to see what happens when the tipping point is reached.

  13. Colin – regarding solar activity, you’re making the mistake of focusing on short-term solar cycles rather than the long-term trend. I did not say that solar irradiance has decreased in each successive year since the middle of the last century. Take an 11-year average, however, so that the noise of the 11-year cycles is removed, and you’ll find the trend in TSI has been downward since the 50s. Check the PMOD data yourself if you like. There’s a good graph of the data plus the Max Planck Institute’s reconstruction here:

    Note that the above graph is a few years old, so it’s missing the last particularly pathetic solar maximum. You say that my comments on modelling are simple “wishful thinking”. However, what I’m saying can be verified by simply looking at the simulations of the 20th century that climate modelers have performed. A good place to start is the last assessment report produced by the IPCC:

    Notice how well the mean of the simulations (red line) correlates with the observations (black line)? Notice how any correlation vanishes post-1960 once anthropogenic forcings are omitted from the models (second graph)? Of course, there are always uncertainties when it comes to climate modelling, and I’m by no means suggesting that our understanding of the climate system is complete enough or our models perfect enough to be certain as to what exactly the future will bring. But they are good enough to allow us to attribute a good portion of the current warming to anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

    As I said, I’d quite like to see your sources regarding the strength of the Medieval Warm Pediod. While you’re looking them up, though, please take the time to have a glance at the reconstructions I cited in my previous comment. Not sure what you’re referring to with regard to the multidecadal cycles you mentioned – if you’re replying to my comment on Milankovitch cyclicity, you should know that there are no orbital cycles that operate on such short timescales.

  14. Hi Gareth,
    It seems there are two debates going on here, one about whether Climate Change is anthropogenic which I’m sure we both agree we’re best out of, and another about Personal Carbon allowances and trading, and whether this could be an effective behaviour changing tool. Let’s stick to that one.

    Thanks very much for the link to some empirical research. I’ll read it with interest as your article has raised all sorts of questions.
    My main question is about the moral/ethical and distributive aspects of the proposal, which is why I am dubious. There are other schools of Political Economy and Economic Philosophy besides Neo Classical. And many of these place far greater emphasis on distribution aspects. Moreover research does not have to be “substantive” in an empirical sense to be relevant, it can also be theoretical. It is none the less relevant for it. Stating that the only supporters for this idea come from Business & New Labour is a “substantive” statement in theoretical Political Economy Research which can be examined.

    The research I read stated that personal carbon trading was well accepted in neo-classical economics but then did not discuss other approaches (including pluridiscilpinary Ecological Economics) That is a failing so I think the idea should be considered from other philosophical stances.

    As Calvin Jones said above, one issue to criticise the European Industry Carbon trading scheme is that the permits were “given” not sold, auctioned etc and that the “price” was set too low, far too large permits were allocated and therefore the price per tonne plummeted leaving the scheme largely ineffective in changing company behaviour. The same problem will arise with personal trading. Moreover unless the price per tonne is set extremely high, by “allocating” very restrictive allowances per person the richer in society will be easily able to buy “Unreasonable Climate Change behaviour allowances” (above average personal carbon allowances) from the poorer in society. Is that fair? Is it equitable when this cohort of the population have been more responsible for emissions than others by their profligate behaviour up to now. How will embedding income/wealth inequality (which has been steadily increasing in the U.K. for over 30 years) into our tool kit to combat climate change be helpful? It will just maintain even exacerbate equalities into our society. You could argue that the richer in Society should be compensating the poorer in Society for this past ecological disparity, in the same way that the developing world was asking for compensation from the developed world at Doha a few weeks ago.

  15. Rhys – With regard to ‘short term’ orbital cycles, I think we are talking slightly at cross purposes. There are many cycles within the Solar System which may influence the weather on earth, particularly those relating to Jupiter and Saturn and their influence on the centre of gravity of the Solar System. As to the last year 2000 Solar max being pathetic, it was anything but. Nothing like 1959 but above the average since 1749. It is the current one, allegedly maxing around May 2013, it really is looking as if it will be very pathetic. As the site says, ‘Solar activity has been low for weeks. Would adding a new sunspot change the situation? … the answer is “no.” And it is that and the forecast for the next cycle, if it appears, which will be of interest to climatologists, together with the information that the Solar Dynamics Observatory will obtain which will, we hope, start to give us a much better insight into what happens on the Sun and how it influences our weather, particularly into its variability.

    With regard to the Medieval Warm period, the latest report I was referring to was but as Matt Ridley reports, a flurry of recent scientific papers has tried to measure the warmth of the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP) of about 1,000 years ago. Of course, he and the CO2 foundation are sceptics so will obviously make it difficult for you to accept the validity of what they say.

    As for the IPCC report – a good place to start? I think not. I won’t even try to start discussing on all the controversy that that report has caused. This is where the problem of consensus really starts and the reason for so much contention. As I am sure you are aware, consensus in science can mean anything from 51% agreeing to nearly 100% – you seldom get complete agreement on anything, that’s why scientists constantly test out the theories, even those that ‘work’. Nowadays so much of scientific work is essentially governed by accountants and lawyers. As anyone who has any experience of obtaining funding will know one has to portray everything in as positive a light as possible, tick all the right boxes and certainly not oppose the consensus. It doesn’t pay the mortgage or fund any research of any kind.

    Whether you believe that CO2 is the main influence in global warming, or whether you believe it isn’t happening I think the response of the German Climatologists to the recent Doha debacle was the sensible one, namely that we should learn to live with the situation and come up with strategies to adapt. I find it impossible to believe that Gareth’s personal carbon idea will achieve anything other than salving our consciences.

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