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Sustain to gain: December 2011 Archives


One of the crucial questions of our time is whether international environmental regimes can and will manage to save the climate and other global environmental commons, such as biodiversity. Oran Young from the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides crucial insights in his meta-analysis, just published in PNAS. Rather than trying to summarize his observations, I aim to highlight a few points.

Interestingly, political scientists judge international regimes systematically more positive than economists, probably reflecting different assumptions and mindsets. Nonetheless, analysts agree there is a full spectrum of international regimes, ranging from the rather successful ones (such as the Montreal protocol on ozone) to the rather unsuccessful ones (such as Kyoto), and many in between. According to a metastudy by Breitmeier et al., international regimes contributed significantly or very strongly in about half of the cases where environmental problems improved. Another observations is that regimes can be successful even in non-hierarchical, non-enforcable circumstances. It turns out that some "easy" problems are systemically messed-up whereas some "hard" problems are surprisingly successful dealt with. Instead, regime design matters a lot: Attention to details can be more crucial then the path chosen (both incentive-based and command and control regulations can lead to success).

Perhaps motivating for the climate issue: a coalition of influential actors can drive a regime towards some sort of success, even if the a single dominant actor remains passive. Fairness and legitimacy are preconditions for success, especially given the mostly non-enforceable character of international regimes. Indeed, Young suggests that we need an understanding of the conditions under which fairness and legitimacy can be productive forces.

Will there be a successful climate regime? We don't know. We can only try. Young suggests some innovative routes that scientists and policy makers should explore.