Monday, June 29, 2015

20 Climate change and the logic of collective action. Climate Change Strategies and Forests in India-II.

Climate as a global commons

Granted that we should be conscious of the limited capacity of the environment to absorb our emissions and repair the damaging effects of excessive resource extraction and unsustainable use, what should be our approach as a world community, and as an individual country? The global atmosphere (and climate) is like a commons, with hundreds of independent countries, thousands of corporate and other bodies, and billions of individual families. There is no mechanism to impose the required controls on carbon emissions on the independent countries, apart from a voluntary agreement. But here the “logic of collective action” comes into operation (Olson, 1965. 1971). Even the nation-state in modern times is not capable of supporting itself solely on voluntary contributions, despite the strong emotional bonds that hold the citizens together, and the benefits that they undeniably get in the continuance of the state structure; the state has to impose compulsory taxes and collect them with a firm hand. This is because, when there is a large multitude of members, no one of them can be prevented from enjoying the benefits of the organization; hence there will be an underlying incentive for the individual to withhold his or her individual contribution as far as possible, as long as it is reasonably certain that the contributions of the myriad others will carry the organization forward. In fact, that would the rational thing to do, even if not ethical or fair.

Another metaphor used to describe such situations is the “tragedy of freedom in a commons” that Hardin (1968) talked about many decades back. The problem with regulating use of a commons is that private costs and benefits are mismatched with public ones: each person has to incur a private cost that may be substantial from the individual point of view, but the collective benefits are enjoyed by everybody, and moreover the individual has little or no control on the actions of all the others, and hence on the outcome. If the others choose to break the agreement and maximize their private returns, our sincere individual may be left ‘holding the short stick’. My PhD guide had a favourite story of his school days to illustrate this: they would tell all the boys line up all the boys around the unheated swimming pool on a winter morning, tell them to close their eyes and jump in on the count of three, and when they opened their eyes, my professor would realize he was the  only guy that had followed the order. No one likes to be taken advantage of in this manner, so there is an in-built tendency for a mismatch between public professions and actual behaviour, if the individual feels that they can get away with it, or suspects that the majority of actors are intending to take advantage.

In simple terms, when there are large numbers of actors, and where the benefits are collective, or public goods, and where no one person could be excluded from enjoying those benefits, it would be the narrowly rational choice for individuals to avoid, as far as possible, the incurring of costs on their side, while continuing to hold a cooperative public posture so as to preserve their position as beneficiary. The consequent loss of the cumulative benefits due to the individual’s covert actions will likely be miniscule (after all, the individual’s contribution is a miniscule proportion, and the enterprise will not break down even if there are a few defaulters), but the return to the defaulter will be disproportionately high. Of course, this sort of ‘free-riding’ will be penalised if it becomes chronic and the community gets tired of it, so the individual may have to pay his dues once in a while, just to maintain his membership in the community. The enterprise can still be viable if the majority adhere to the rules, but sometimes a few bad apples can spoil the whole lot.

Faced with this situation, one would have to resort either to some control from outside (the state makes and enforces strict laws, for example), or the resource is privatized so that both the costs and benefits are incident on the same entity (i.e., externalities are internalized).  There is, however, a possible third alternative in-between state control and privatization (Dilip Kumar, 1991), where the community and the state get together in a joint arrangement, an example of the ‘nested’ institutions that Elinor Ostrom recommended as the most conducive to successful management of common property resources (e.g., see Ostrom, 1990).

This problem of ‘collective action’ is recognized by the “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report” (IPCC 2014c) in the following words:

Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently. Climate change has the characteristics of a collective action problem at the global scale… Cooperative responses, including international cooperation, are therefore required…The evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective cooperation.” (IPCC, 2014c, p.76; emphasis in original).

In the Indian forest scenario, for example, this principle has been institutionalised in the Joint Forest Management (JFM), regime wherein the state forests are managed in partnership with the communities, and conversely, communities also find it more effective to protect even their own forest resources if there is support from the state (e.g. Dilip Kumar, 2013).

Choosing between domestic interests and global concerns

In our climate change scenario, what would be the rational choice for a country like India, given this ‘logic of collective action’? We need to be clear about two things: firstly, if India were to limit its GHG emissions (say at today’s levels), what would be the impact on global climate change? India contributes a sizeable quantum of current emissions (because, like China, it has a huge population, although at very low per capita levels of consumption and, consequently, emissions), and it may be thought that a cap on aggregate emissions at the current level would have a discernible impact, but in the world situation this may be masked because other countries will continue to increase their  emissions. Moreover in spite of such caps, India and other economies will still be adding sizeably every year to the carbon load in the atmosphere. Consider, for example, India’s contribution to global CO2 from the “energy and transformation industries” in 2007 according to NATCOM-2 (Government of India, 2012): taking the figure as 749,617 Gg, or 749.6 mta (or 0.7496 Gt per annum), it constitutes a small (if not exactly negligible) fraction of the annual contribution of 49 Gt in 2010 (globally) referred to above. Even if India wants to double the energy production, say over a period of 10 years, this will add only around 0.075 Gt to the annual addition to the global GHGs, compared to the annual increase of 1 Gt per year globally (see above).  This is only 7.5% of the increase in annual CO2 accretions, but CO2 levels will still be increasing year to year, unless some great new sink or method of fixing it could be found.

In other words, India by itself will not be able to contribute meaningfully to the resolution of the GHG problem just by curbing energy production at current levels, or influence the actions of the rest of the world (this is not a situation where the famous moral force of Gandhism can be applied!). So India will have to proceed as if the rest of the world is going to keep increasing its emissions in the near future. If India were to make any voluntary, unilateral sacrifices now, it would have neither the imagined benefits of the reduced carbon loads, nor the benefits of a stronger economy and greater world influence in the future. Indeed, the very fact that a huge population like India foregoes its present entitlements, will only prompt other countries to appropriate that share for themselves.

Therefore, it is not a rational strategy for a country like India to make any unilateral cuts or promises at the present juncture, and this has rightly been our position in the world climate conferences, with the only concession made that we will never exceed the current per capita emission levels of the industrial countries. These, of course, are levels we will never even aspire to: as has been repeated often enough, we will need another seven planet Earths if all the world’s people were to consume at the western levels.

We will, however, be aspiring to some intermediate level of consumption, which will require a many-fold increase in the production of energy and various other sectors. On the other hand, India has the world’s largest population of poor, with low quality of life indicators; it has to vigorously pursue its course of positive affirmation to set right the historical wrongs to sections of the population, and increase investment in public health and medicare, education, communications, skills development, job creation, etc., and at the same time play its geo-political role as one of the largest economies of the world. The experience of the last general election suggests that the masses also are looking for something beyond just subsidized food and other doles, and there is a huge middle class that has aspirations of making it in the modern economy.  

This does not mean, however, that we should be indifferent to the issues of environmental degradation in our own sphere, quite regardless of the world climate conferences (just as, indeed, high carbon emitters like the developed west would be well advised to reduce per capita consumption levels, not for the sake of the global good, but in the interests of the health and well-being of their own citizens).
Indeed, this has been the strategy adopted by our governments over the past decades: while insisting on our share of the global carbon cake, in terms of increasing per capita consumption (and emissions) levels, we have also steadily taken many steps to improving the sustainability of our development process and mitigating damage to our own environment. Of course, the complaint is that we are strong in legislation, but weak in enforcement, as the numerous articles in the popular media, and the spate of environmental cases in the courts, attest. This lag between intent and action, however, is to be expected during the catch-up phase, when all output levels are being racked up many-fold. In keeping with the form of the Kuznets curve, we may expect to see a lessening of this gap and an improvement in both the incidence of poverty  and the laxity in enforcing environmental safeguards as GDP per capita progresses beyond a certain level (see Lomborg, op. cit., p.177 for examples of this in the context of particle pollution and SO2 pollution).

In the meanwhile, it will be an advisable strategy to identify the points of greatest importance that need to be addressed to keep our country’s environmental systems and natural resource base intact in anticipation of those future levels of relative prosperity. Some of these crucial sectors are our water resources, our forests and grasslands, our biodiversity and wildlife habitats, our marine resources and coastlands, our wetlands (especially mangroves), our catchment areas in the hills, and our urban air quality. While we need to accelerate our development process, we also need to ensure grater participation in the fruits of that development, by rapidly improving public education and public health, communications and transport facilities, raising skill levels and employability, minimizing displacement of people and ensuring proper rehabilitation where displacement is unavoidable, just as with diversion of natural habitats.

(This article series is based on my paper prepared for the “International Conference on Climate Change and Social-Ecological-Economic Interface-Building”, May 20-21, 2015, organized by the Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources (CEENR), Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru-560072, India. Uploaded at:


Climate change, green-house gases, development strategy, natural resources, forest, carbon sequestration, IPCC, REDD


Dilip Kumar, P.J. 1991. Between common property and state monopoly: the institutional context of wasteland management in India. In “Managing the Village Commons”, Proceedings of national workshop 15-16 December, 1991, Bhubaneswar, Orissa. IIFM, Bhopal.

Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2013. Village Communities and Their Common Property Forests. Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLVIII, No.35, August 31, 2013, p.33-36.

Government of India. 2012. India. Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. New Delhi.

Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, p.1243-1248.

Lomborg, Bjørn. (1998) 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist. Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press, UK and New York.

Olson, Mancur. 1965, 1971. The Logic of Collective Action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (USA).

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge Universities Press, Cambridge.

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