‘Targeted punishment’ strategy mooted to prevent climate free-riding

Model based on game theory could boost cooperation between countries on emissions cuts, say researchers

Negotiators huddle on the floor at 2012's Conference of the Parties in Doha (Pic: UNFCCC)

Negotiators huddle on the floor at 2012’s Conference of the Parties in Doha. Decisions at UN climate talks are made by consensus (Pic: UNFCCC)

By Alex Pashley

“Rest assured, if we fail, future generations … will want to know how we together could possibly have been so blind, so ideological, so dysfunctional, and frankly, so stubborn that we failed to act.”

Countries have chafed at collective action on climate change, warned US secretary state John Kerry at a UN summit in 2014, despite it being in the interest of all.

Research published on Tuesday rethinks how almost 200 nations could cooperate through different incentives and sanctions to secure a robust global warming agreement.

Based on game theory, it works by shifting the spotlight of responsibility onto one country at a time. That player then gets a targeted punishment – or reward – depending on its performance.

Lead author Samuel Johnson, a mathematician at the University of Warwick, explained: “Some form of punishment, or positive incentives, can help maintain cooperation in situations where almost everyone is already cooperating, such as in a country with very little crime.

“But when there are only a few people cooperating and many more not doing so punishment can be too dilute to have any effect. In this regard, the international community is a bit like a failed state.”

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His paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, proposes dividing countries into groups, ranked in order of their likelihood to cooperate.

The most hawkish – Latvia, Costa Rica or the Marshall Islands, perhaps – deliver their pledges first.

Then next group, the wider European Union, then posts its contribution conditional on the first group’s achievement of its stated aims to build cooperation.

The spotlight shifts onto a third group, as the sequence makes its way to countries less willing to make their move first.

At each stage, there are incentives available, like technology transfer, or targeted punishments like trade sanctions for those who do not do their part.

“If one imagines all eyes towards the single player whose turn it is to cooperate – or to the single small group of such players – it is easy to see how one might be more inclined to cooperate than in a world of distributed responsibility,” he writes in the paper.

“Finally even the biggest polluters would run out of excuses once a majority of other groups were cooperating.”

A diagram of two possible strategies of targeted punishment studied in the paper (Credit: Royal Society Open Science)

A diagram of two possible strategies of targeted punishment studied in the paper
Players are arranged from most to least inherently cooperative; those currently cooperating are shown in red and those defecting in blue. A black arrow indicates a defector who is considered at fault (and therefore liable to be punished) according to the strategy, while a grey arrow signals a cooperator who would be at fault if she were defecting. (Credit: Royal Society Open Science)

Countries have already organised themselves into an alphabet soup of bloc with shared climate negotiating positions: BASIC, LDCs, G77 and AOSIS, to name a few.

For the purposes of enforcing emissions targets, they could voluntarily form groups, Johnson suggested. Or an independent body, like the UN science agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, might categorise nations according to wealth or ambition levels.

Analysts at the Climate Action Tracker have developed ways to work out a country’s “fair share” in emissions reduction. The IPCC could adopt this in its specifications, Johnson told RTCC.

WRI’s CAIT database offers another resource to assess and compare national circumstances.

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Johnson sees countries reverting to type in the build-up to a headline climate summit in December, producing a weak, unenforceable agreement.

As such, he hopes the research will filter in the “pool of ideas” and be picked up by policymakers, going the way of academic proposals for carbon markets.

“We have already tried signing up to commitments, enshrining these in law, privatising the commons through carbon trading schemes – yet yearly global CO2 emissions are now about 30% higher than the Kyoto Protocol was adopted,” he writes.

“Perhaps it is time for a new approach.”

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