Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ostrom on decentralized environmental legislation

I'm no fashion expert or anything, but I always liked the outfit she wore to the Nobel ceremony.
This seemed like as good a place as any to highlight that.

Ostrom stayed productive through her battle with cancer. This is her Project Syndicate article, from earlier today. She writes:

"Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.

We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.

Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements. Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail.

The good news is that evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.

This is hardly surprising – indeed, it should be encouraged.

Most major cities sit on coasts, straddle rivers, or lie on vulnerable deltas, putting them on the front line of rising sea levels and flooding in the coming decades. Adaptation is a necessity. But, with cities responsible for 70% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, mitigation is better.

When it comes to tackling climate change, the United States has produced no federal mandate explicitly requiring or even promoting emissions-reductions targets. But, by May last year, some 30 US states had developed their own climate action plans, and more than 900 US cities have signed up to the US climate-protection agreement.

This grassroots diversity in “green policymaking” makes economic sense. “Sustainable cities” attract the creative, educated people who want to live in a pollution-free, modern urban environment that suits their lifestyles. This is where future growth lies. Like upgrading a mobile phone, when people see the benefits, they will discard old models in a flash."

Regular readers know that I am strongly on board with all of these points. The weaknesses of public solutions to problems can often be overcome by diverse, decentralized responses (federalism), which provide the opportunity for different public authorities to learn from each other. Ostrom goes on to emphasize that Rio is important (a point she makes in the beginning as well). I agree, although she didn't seem to quite put her finger here on why. The problem with decentralization (and one of the reasons why markets aren't necessarily the best way to solve these problems) is the problem of externalities and free-riding. Controlling carbon emissions and sustainability are positive externalities, and so we'd expect competing jurisdictions to underinvest. So I agree with Ostrom that it makes sense to have these international frameworks to set broad goals, expectations, and interconnections - but they should not be used as a one-size-fits-all substitute for localized solutions.

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