Overcoming the tragedy of the commons – a Grantham Scholar’s perspective on COP21

Last month, Grantham Scholar Robert Hardie joined the University of Sheffield’s delegation to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. Here he reflects on his experiences as a student attending COP for the first time.

Find out more about the Grantham Centre at COP21

Robert Hardie

On returning to the UK from France, my memories of just two weeks spent at the 21st Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are comprised of aircraft hangers full of busy, tired people, panel discussions, new faces and connections, business cards, news updates, bus and train journeys, lavish country pavilions, public statements, spontaneous conversations, concepts, politics, bargaining, TV cameras, plenary meetings, documents and delegations. It was a spectacle to say the least. Tens of thousands of people crammed into events halls presenting to each other what they know, looking to learn about what they don’t, and convening with the aim of coming to a worldwide agreement on how to mitigate our impact on the climate. In trying to draw conclusions from my experience, I’m feeling hopeful about what I was lucky enough to see.

Before leaving for Paris I was researching differing incentives for action on climate change, which led me to theories on the ways in which people collectively use common-pool resources. Common-pool resources are resources to which people have communal access, for example a lake or ocean used for fisheries, a savannah system used for cattle grazing, or an atmosphere used for the expulsion of carbon dioxide. The first mainstream theories of common pool resource use dictated that in situations of poor or absent resource regulation, resources will be exploited to and over their sustainable limit by self-interested users, leading to what has been termed the tragedy of the commons. When every other user of a resource is exploiting it to serve their own interests, why not expand fisheries, graze more cattle or further expand an economy built on fossil fuels? The theory of the tragedy the commons seemed like a logical reflection of human nature.

However, human interactions with each other and with the environment are much more complex than simple logic would suggest. In 2009 a renowned economist named Elinor Ostrom recieved a Nobel Prize for showing that under the right conditions people sharing common pool resources can develop mechanisms of self-regulation that avoid tragedies of depletion. Ostrom studied examples of successful communal resource use in environments of weak formal regulation, finding that under the right conditions, face-to-face human interactions can build trust between resource users, and from that trust, regulatory practices can be forged that ensure the sustainability of a common-pool resource.

The right conditions needed to avert a system of depletion, cited in Ostrom’s examples, are very important for the unique characteristics of climate change. Centralised regulation overruling the contextual relevance of each user’s resource use practices, lack of natural resource boundaries and a lack of a common culture or language among resource users are elements that can undermine trust and the formation of resource use mitigation strategies. Such elements have historically had a role in undermining collective agreements for climate change action. There was a genuine risk that this year’s COP would see a repeat of the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen six years ago, where due largely to the above influences and the organisational failures of the conference, parties failed to build trust, to reach compromises and to ratify a final agreement.

This year’s COP however, was perfectly orchestrated, allowing for an agreement to be forged. The introduction of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, established before the conference, meant that countries could bring forward to the negotiations the specific contexts of their resource use without interference from a centralised authority. Before the conference even began, each party was aware that others were making sacrifices, creating a level of trust. The following couple of weeks allowed these pledges to be built on through the face-to-face interactions that Ostrom deemed so necessary, and allowed parties to build further trust and compromise. The role of the French conference presidency was one of transparent and honest facilitation of such interactions, with little imposition of regulation and a continuing supply of information and motivation.

Travelling on a shuttle bus from the conference, packed with an international community of delegates and observers, and buzzing with serendipitous conversation, reminded me of Ostrom’s theories. The open, honest, face-to-face communication that was occurring in front of me and throughout the conference complex was a perfect example of how, under the right conditions, people can work together to make compromises that reduce the chance of plundering shared resources. The agreement reached at COP21 marks a turning point in the regulation of the common resource of the global atmosphere, overcoming previous obstacles that led to disagreement. Although the implementation of the agreement is another question entirely, and will need a continuation of trust and compromise, the feat of diplomacy that was COP21, for now, is something to be proud of.