Why governments are going it alone on climate change

23 May 2017

Traditionally climate change has been seen as a collective action problem, where states have an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others (known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma). Yet around the world national and sub-national governments are introducing unilateral regulatory measures to reduce emissions.

Recent research by Professor Peter Drahos and Dr Christian Downie suggests that it is increasingly in states' interests to regulate on emissions for a variety of reasons, including on economic, geopolitical and moral grounds.  

Early regulation can give countries a competitive advantage by encouraging them to innovate ahead of international competitors. Regulation of emissions in China provides a number of other co-benefits such as improved air quality and leadership in renewable technologies with corresponding economic benefits.   Successful unilateral climate regulation is also likely to be copied around the world, multiplying the benefits exponentially.

Climate change is a threat multiplier due to the increased risk of conflict over water, food and other resources. In the event of a crisis precipitated by climate change, a state that has previously responded to the threat has more chance of leading and shaping global response, enhancing their geopolitical standing and interests overall.

The structure of the Paris Climate Agreement rejects the old free rider logic and urges and invites regulatory unilateralism with its mechanism for ratcheting up of nation state emissions pledges.

The research has a number of policy implications:

  • We need to gain a better understanding of the extent and depth of regulatory unilateral action on climate change being undertaken by all states at the national and sub-national levels.
  • We need to question whether the Prisoner's Dilemma framework captures the real-world dynamics of the problem of climate change.
  • Be aware of the wide range of co-benefits from taking unilateral measures. These go beyond economic benefits to include, for example, the geopolitical benefit a state has from preserving the existing order and avoiding worst-case climate scenarios.
  • Unilateral measures should be chosen based on a country's regulatory and innovation capabilities.

Regulatory unilateralism may offer the best hope of triggering a race to cut emissions. A race rather than prolonged negotiations is what is required at this moment in climate history.

Peter Drahos and Christian Downie, ‘Regulatory Unilateralism: Arguments for going it alone on climate change’ Global Policy (2016) doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12349  First published 23 June 2016.