Saving The Climate Without A Political Solution
Unfortunately, it is almost time to give up hope that the 2015 Paris Agreement will turn out any different from the litany of past well-meaning climate agreements. Climate Action Tracker, a group of scientists who study emissions, found that vanishingly few of the 194 countries who have signed the Paris Agreement set targets that were commensurate with the targeted temperature goal of 1.5 degrees. Worse, most countries are not close to meeting the lowly targets they set themselves.
The United States’ withdrawal was an unnecessary blow to the prospects of the agreement, but the rot runs much deeper than Donald Trump’s White House. Countries the world over have proven unwilling or unable to curb emissions, no matter whether the proposed framework is binding (as with the Kyoto Protocol) or non-binding (as with the Paris Agreement).
In light of this tragicomic history of failure, it is long past time that we reconsider the orthodoxy around climate action. Politicians have failed to achieve anywhere near the level of progress required to stave off climate catastrophe. According to researchers from the Global Carbon Project, 2017 and 2018 saw progressive increases in global CO2 emissions (1.6% and 2.7% respectively), with 2018 marking an all-time high for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. These sobering facts illustrate the profound extent of state failure: any plausible climate solution cannot rely on political action occurring, let alone effective collaboration between countries.
A new doctrine is simple enough in theory — climate problem-solving in the future should centre on the individual, rather than the state. This new orthodoxy calls for an emphasis on incentivising individuals to achieve climate action, instead of continually agitating for state action. A decentralised approach enables the consideration of radical ideas, unencumbered by the restrictive bounds of political feasibility. Consolidating the climate movement around solutions that realign individual incentives has the potential to transform the staid state of sustainability efforts in ways we can barely imagine.
For a start, consider the possibility of a billion-dollar prize fund for climate research, marketed as a call to the world’s thinkers to ‘Save Our Planet’. This prize fund would offer large monetary awards to individuals who submit inventions or research towards projects related to sustainability technology and climate science. The prizes would be conditional on the inventors and scientists waiving their IP rights and making the invention or research open-source. This prize model should help incentivise inventors to trade off the potential gain from developing their IP privately, and motivate students and scientists to focus on climate and sustainability solutions when they might otherwise specialise elsewhere.
While enough money will need to be found, it is not hard to imagine a plausible consortium of multilateral institutions (the UN, the World Bank), climate-conscious businesses (Google, Apple, Nike) and philanthropists (Mr Gates, Mr Bloomberg) willing to support a fund of this nature. Of course, we cannot be sure to what extent the prize fund would produce breakthroughs in the fight against climate change. But a large-scale mobilisation of scientific and innovative efforts maximises our chances of developing solutions that either aid the adoption of sustainable technology, or slow the impact of climate change. The open-source nature of the scheme also ensures that new developments can be adopted globally, without delay and without interference from IP lawyers.
The prize fund is a good example of what a decentralised philosophy represents: an emphasis on empowering individuals, and a willingness to offer a carrot instead of a stick. For an example of what this new orthodoxy might entail on a society-wide scale, look to the potential of blockchain technology as a means of systematically incentivising positive action. The solution would involve the ‘tokenising’ of positive environmental decisions, such that good actions by a person are rewarded with digital tokens. Rather than plead with consumers to recycle and save water, a decentralised solution would tangibly reward these actions. This aligns much more smoothly with what we know about effective behavioural economics. Even better, behavioural changes among consumers has a corresponding effect on other economic actors: supermarkets might not willingly agree to stop selling plastic straws, but they may do so of their own accord if consumer demand dries up.
This kind of virtuous cycle based on a blockchain might sound like science fiction, but blockchain solutions like the above have already been deployed in Shanghai and San Marino. These platforms incentivise environmentally friendly practices like water saving and driving electric vehicles by rewarding individuals with commensurate amounts of utility tokens. These tokens can then be spent on services (for instance, in Shanghai you are able to spend your tokens to receive discounted medical care at the prestigious Renji Hospital). As a consequence of the blockchain reward scheme, individuals do not need to fear climate change (or even believe in it) in order to derive a personal benefit from taking actions that are better for the environment.
A focus on decentralised solutions such as these help climate activists circumnavigate unhelpful political leadership. Crucially, the approach does not require that individuals are regulated into being better environmental actors; it instead helps ensure that doing so is in the individual's best interest.
To be clear, this writer is no free market utopian. If the world’s politicians had displayed any proclivity at all to rise to the challenge of climate change, with appropriately substantial policies and regulations, he would have no interest in entrusting the future of the planet to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. But such are the dangerous and desperate times we live in. The starkest of warnings from scientists have failed to embolden governments into real action.
This piece is an open call to climate activists to shelve Hobbes’ Leviathan in favour of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. Without significant change in politics, the world’s best chance will lie with a large-scale realignment of individual incentives.