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Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

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Worldwide annual CO2 emissions are about 35 billion tons and rising.  So what difference does it make if I ride my bike to work every day to avoid 5 tons of emissions this year, or if decide not to make that family trip to Hawaii because of the 20 tons of CO2 it will emit?  Even if I do make these sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint, China’s emissions are increasing so fast that they will cancel my reductions out by a factor of millions.  I might as well just live my life and hope that our governments deal with the problem, or that a new technology comes along just in time to save the day.  And even if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes unlivable, there is nothing that I could have done about it.

Even for people deeply concerned about climate change, these attitudes are widespread and rational.  Why make a personal sacrifice when its effect on overall climate is negligible?  Even though my children and I would benefit from a cleaner atmosphere, we, and a billion other families, will get that benefit regardless of whether or not I personally “green up my act.”

Similar calculations are made by individuals, companies, industries, and countries the world over, and represent a major barrier to action on climate change.  No one wants to sacrifice unless everyone else is sacrificing, and many would prefer to be a “free rider” on sacrifices made by others.   Economists and social scientists refer to the refusal of individuals to give up a small individual benefit for a large collective benefit as a “collective action problem” or the “tragedy of the commons.”

Because of the widespread belief that the collective action problem makes voluntary approaches to carbon reduction impractical (or that focus on individual voluntary action will reduce pressure for institutional change), much of the focus on addressing carbon emissions has been on achieving global-level climate accords or national-level actions such as a federal carbon tax.  These supra-national or national-level efforts promised to avoid the collective action problem by imposing binding quotas and restrictions by ensuring that the sacrifice is borne by all.  Unfortunately, international climate negotiations and national carbon taxes have borne little fruit (in large part because of collective action problems occurring at the national and international levels.)

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Consumer Education Key to Climate Policy Progress

Getting consumers to accept personal responsibility for their carbon usage is a critical step in building a durable political coalition to address climate change.  Consumers who are concerned about their personal CO2 emissions are likely not only to reduce their emissions, they are much more likely to strongly back carbon taxes and other climate-friendly legislation.

Key messages of a consumer-directed campaign include:  “Each gallon of gas you use puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the air,” “the CO2 you put in the air stays in the air,” and “reduce the CO2 that you can, offset what you can’t.”

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Can Carbon Offsets Make A Comeback

Carbon OffsetsCarbon offsets allow users of carbon to “offset” their carbon use by funding projects which reduce an equal or greater amount of carbon emissions elsewhere. For example, a person who flies from Seattle to New York and back emits about 7,000 pounds of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.  To counteract the emissions from the flight, a person can “buy an offset” to help fund a project (a typical project is purchasing high-efficiency cookstoves for people in Africa presently using carbon-spewing stoves) that will prevent 7,000 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.   By purchasing an offset, a person can theoretically make the cross-country flight without adding to the atmospheric over-saturation of CO2 that is threatening our planet.     Some people purchase offsets to counterbalance their entire carbon footprint, which averages about 17 tons or 34,000 pounds for the average American.  Most voluntary carbon offsets are purchased by businesses interested in “greening” the image of their business.

Given that carbon offsets provide just about the only way for individuals and businesses to zero out their carbon footprint, one would think that carbon offsets would be increasing popular, given growing concerns about global warming.  Just the opposite—voluntary carbon offset transactions in 2013 totaled only $78 million, off 42% from 2010 levels, and sufficient to offset only 9 million tons of CO2 (the CO2 emissions of 500,000 Americans).  A flurry of press articles and academic studies about carbon offsets from 2006-2010 has tapered to nearly nothing.  The last time the New York Times wrote about offsets was in 2007.

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