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Repeated games may help climate change negotiations

November 22, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Reading a post from Michael Cameron’s blog reminded me of how repeated games of the prisoner’s dilemma may help climate change negotiations.

The Paris Agreement came in to effect on 4th November this year and it brings all nations into a common cause to undertake take ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

The main issue with tackling climate change is the cost to countries of implementing it. To be successful it will need profound transformation of energy and transport organisations, and changes in the behaviours of billions of consumers. Research has suggested that it will likely cost 1% of GDP – even though it doesn’t seem much, it is double the amount currently spent on development aid worldwide.

A successor treaty? 

According to Michael Liebreich, the prospects don’t look good when you consider the following:

  • The US sees a cap on carbon emissions as a threat to competitiveness, and hence to its global supremacy. Add to this the rhetoric of President elect Donald Trump which has dismissed global warming.
  • The developing world denounces any calls for a cap on emissions as an effort by former colonial powers to hold back development;
  • Europe has been making encouraging though patchy progress towards targets, driven mainly by a one-off switch from coal to gas.

The issue here is how countries can expect to make cuts in emissions when their economic competitors refuse. This in turn leads to The Tragedy of the Commons which occurs when a group’s individual incentive lead them to take actions which, overall, lead to negative consequences for all group members.

Climate Change as Prisoner’s Dilemma
The initial impression from the discussions over climate change is that of a typical Prisoner’s Dilemma. As mentioned previously, 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.

Climate Change - Pris Dil

Form 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.

Final thought 

Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma provides valuable insight into how countries should act away from the negotiating table and over the longer term. This analysis also highlights the fact that the negotiations themselves are not the game. Diplomats and politicians don’t reduce emissions, engineers and consumers do. However, there are errors in the resemblance as governments can form alliances, which makes the dynamics of the game a great deal more complex. Furthermore, they can act inconsistently and irrationally, and their willingness to act is most probably associated with the harshness of global warming. Ultimately, for the planet’s sake, one hopes that everyone will play the game.

Sources: 

  • The Economist – Economics Focus: Playing with the planet. 29th September 2007 
  • New Energy Finance – How to Save the Planet – Michael Liebreich– 11th September 2007 
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