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Incentives for small clubs of Arctic countries to limit emissions of short-lived climate pollutants

17 December 2017 Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO)

A new method for quantifying the benefits of countries working together in clubs to limit emissions of short-lived climate pollutants is published online this week in Nature Climate Change.

The study finds that limiting emissions of black carbon and methane requires different types of cooperation, because soot, the main source of black carbon, causes severe local harm to human health along with warming, whereas the impacts of methane are much more geographically diffused. The study also reports large variation in the effectiveness of clubs—small clubs can achieve large emissions reductions if they are configured with the right countries. Poorly configured clubs, even if larger, can implicate large efforts with little return.

The authors quantified incentives to reduce emissions using an atmospheric transport and chemistry model that allowed them to link actual impacts on climate, crops and health back to the countries that cause the emissions. They focus on a setting that is ideal for evaluating the club logic: cooperation on short-lived climate pollutants in the Arctic. The region is especially sensitive to climate change, and thus the benefits from successful action are large.

Focusing on the short-lived climate pollutants black carbon and methane that have near-term climate and other local impacts is especially promising, as it may create stronger political incentives for the countries that emit these pollutants and those harmed to cooperate. Institutions that can effectively facilitate cooperation already exist, notably the eight member Arctic Council, and thus transaction costs for initiating cooperation could be relatively low.

Understanding the incentives for cooperation around these pollutants in the context of the Arctic is important and it also offers a test case for the broader theory that working in small groups can generate benefits and experience that can spill over into making broader cooperation on climate change more feasible.

“We find that the mechanism of providing reliable information to parties about the costs and benefits of controlling pollution could have a particularly large impact on action to reduce black carbon emissions, because soot causes such severe within-country impacts on human health. For methane, improved calculation of self-interest is less motivating because methane causes less direct harm; more of the logic for controlling methane rests with strategic cooperation”, said lead-author Stine Aakre from CICERO.

Most members of the Arctic Council offer little leverage on the problems at hand. Not all relevant polluting nations are full members of the Arctic Council and thus real-world efforts to craft cooperation must contend with a problem of club configuration.

The benefits of working in very small groups within established institutions where trust is often relatively high contrasts with the extra leverage offered by engaging more countries, such as China and India (observers of the Council), whose emissions also reach the Arctic.

Current cooperation efforts have been heavily focused on black carbon when, in fact, that area offers the least advantage from traditional strategic cooperation. According to co-author David G. Victor, these insights do not suggest that institutions such as the Arctic Council should focus more exclusively on methane.

“However, this work does suggest that policymakers need to marry a vision for how international institutions can help change behavior with their goals and the physical and spatial characteristics of the pollutants they are trying to manage.

“The architects of these club institutions must find a sweet spot – groups small enough to get things done yet large enough (with the right configuration) to change how countries calculate and pursue their self-interest”, said Victor.

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