Home > Behavioural Economics, Externalities, Growth, Transport > Airbus + China + ETS = Prisoner’s Dilemma

Airbus + China + ETS = Prisoner’s Dilemma

Last week saw Chinese officials indicating that Chinese airlines will not buy European airplanes as long as the EU insists on including foreign airlines in its emission trading system. Orders of 35 Airbus A330 planes have been cancelled and another 10 A380’s were in danger of being cancelled because of the ETS. The Chinese argument is that it is not reasonable to charge Chinese airlines taxes at the same time that the plane is made in Europe. China currently buys more than 1 in 5 Airbus planes being produced and the total of Chinese orders amounts to US$9bn. Therefore one could say that the future of Airbus hinges on the ETS. This raises the question of climate change and what are the options that countries face.

Climate Change as Prisoner’s Dilemma
The initial impression from the discussions over climate change is that of a typical Prisoner’s Dilemma and some of the data provided in the Stern Review (2006) can be used to populate the payoff table.

–The cost of tackling climate change is approximately 1% of annual per capita GDP. However, if nothing is done about the issue the cost is estimated to be between 5% to 20% of GDP. So that defines what happens at the extreme of cooperative or non-cooperative behaviour. From the table above, a country that refuses to act, whilst the other cooperates, will experience a free-rider benefit – enjoying the advantage of limited climate change without the cost. On the flip side, any country that imposes limits, when its competitors do not, incurs not just the cost of limiting its own emissions, but also a further cost in terms of reduced competitiveness – estimated here at an additional 3.0%. From the table it seems predictable that countries should prefer to be self-interested: the best national policy, if others reduce emissions, is to defect; likewise, if other countries are not taking action, then it is pointless to be the only sucker to take action, and one should again defect.

Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma and Cooperation
The dynamics of the prisoner’s dilemma do change if participants know that they will be playing the game more than once. In 1984 an American political scientist at the University of Michigan, Robert Axelrod, argued that if you play the game repeatedly you are likely to see emerging is cooperative rather than defective actions. He identified four elements to a successful strategy which is this case can be applied to climate negotiations:

1. Be Nice – sign up to unilateral cuts in emissions, as deep as your economy and financing capacity allows.

2. Be Retaliatory – single out countries that have not commenced action and, in collaboration, find ways of pressurising them until they do so.

3. Be Forgiving– when non-compliant countries come onboard give them generous applause; signal that good behaviour will be rewarded with even deeper cuts in your own emissions.

4. Be Clear
– let everyone know in advance exactly how you are going to behave – that you will work with them if they take action on emissions, and that you will retaliate if they do not.

It is the belief of Michael Liebreich that this research by Axelrod should be put into practice by the world’s climate negotiators. As treaties on climate change are on-going and therefore become part of the game.

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