Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Collective Action on Mitigation


Climate change mitigation can often be treated as a collective action problem. This happens when individuals don’t want to reduce their own emissions. Sometimes we do want to reduce emissions. For example, low-emission food, transportation, and buildings are often healthier, more convenient, and less expensive. But, often, we don’t want to reduce emissions. Instead, we would rather continue doing whatever we had been doing before. In the language of Unit 2, we don’t want to transition to sustainability. When this happens, we face a collective action problem. It is in our individual interest to keep emitting, but it is in our group interest to reduce emissions.

This has its challenges. With climate change, we are trying to foster collective action among all of humanity, now more than 7 billion people. This has many more challenges. There are language barriers. There are differences in values. There are differences in awareness about climate change. And there is the monumental logistical challenge of reaching some sort of agreement across so many people.

Since 1992, global collective action on climate change has been promoted via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Note that it is the United Nations. This means that the world’s population is grouped by nationality, instead of by religion, wealth, ethnicity, ethics views, or anything else. Each nation sends representatives to treaty negotiations that occur once or twice per year. The biggest meeting happens each December in a different city. In 1997, the meeting was in Kyoto. This meeting resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty signed by most countries (but not the United States) that was aimed at reducing emissions between 2008 and 2012 but was largely unsuccessful. In 2009, the meeting was in Copenhagen. Hopes were high that a more successful Kyoto Protocol replacement would be achieved at Copenhagen. Instead, the much weaker Copenhagen Accord was reached, a non-binding document negotiated by the US and other countries. In 2012, at the meeting in Doha, Qatar, the Doha Amendment was adopted, which extended the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. A key shift in climate diplomacy occurred at the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Paris, France. Specifically, signatories to the Kyoto Protocol agreed to set country specific greenhouse gas reduction targets, which are referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Countries are in the process of setting NDC levels. You can read more about the Paris Agreement on the UNFCCC website.

There are several reasons why it is so difficult to reach a strong international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, reaching any international treaty is difficult, given the large number of nations around the world. The UNFCCC has 194 member nations. Even North Korea participates, despite being absent from many other international processes. Second, reducing emissions is very difficult. Emissions are closely tied to fossil fuel use, which is, in turn, closely tied to industrial activity. For a nation to reduce its emissions, it might have to reduce its standard of living or even its geopolitical strength. Third, there are major differences between the positions and views of different countries. Poor countries often feel that it is unfair for rich countries to ask them to reduce emissions when the rich countries cause most of the emissions and when the poor are just trying to develop a decent standard of living. Countries that own a lot of fossil fuels often want the opportunity to extract and use the fossil fuels, either for their own activities or to sell to other countries. Countries that are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (e.g., small island developing states in the Caribbean and Pacific) are especially eager for emissions to be reduced. All of these factors (and others) combine to make it very difficult to achieve international collective action on mitigation.