The Case for Nationally Self-Interested Climate Action

Tiran Rahimian is an associate editor with the MJSDL. He is currently in his second year at the McGill Faculty of Law.

The incoming president of the planet's second-biggest polluter has gone from signing a public letter calling for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to dismissing climate change as a "Chinese hoax", promising to withdraw from the Paris accord, and finally conceding that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and global warming. Attribution: Gage Skidmore, Donald Trump.

The incoming president of the planet’s second-biggest polluter has gone from signing a public letter calling for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to dismissing climate change as a “Chinese hoax”, promising to withdraw from the Paris accord, and finally conceding that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and global warming. Attribution: Gage Skidmore, Donald Trump.

Climate change mitigation is often described as a prisoner’s dilemma. The default assumption in sustainable development scholarship has long been that the domestic costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions outweigh its domestic benefits, thereby giving rise to a ‘tragedy of the commons’ wherein individual states are incentivised to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others. There is nonetheless an increasingly convincing prima facie case that the decarbonisation of the global economy can be sustained in ways that are actually net-beneficial to individual states, even leaving aside the blatant environmental benefits. In an age where the incoming leader of the world’s second-biggest polluter is skeptical of anthropogenic warming and promises to scrap “job-killing restrictions” on the production of fossil fuels, the case for nationally and commercially self-interested climate action provides considerable succor to optimists: with or without the United States, national and commercial self-interest will sustain the combat against climate change.

In China, the renewable energy industry has evolved from an ‘attractive alternative’ to a vital imperative. A recent study found that urban pollution contributes to 1.6m annual deaths in the nation’s cities. In a bid to fight its toxic air crisis, the planet’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide has since launched an ‘environmental police force’ to enforce emission restrictions in its capital, Beijing. The People’s Republic has also evolved over the past decade into the world’s largest producer of solar energy, wind power, and smart grid technology.

Self-interest will also keep the world’s fourth largest polluter on the path towards cleaner energies. It is estimated that India spends 2.6% of its GDP to deal with the consequences of extreme weather caused by climate change. Global warming has exacerbated the frequency and severity of its droughts, storms, and floods, causing an estimated USD 5 billion of damage per annum. It has also reduced India’s agricultural productivity, and raised sea levels along its 7,500 kilometer coastline, severely damaging its already frail and crumbling infrastructure. Comprehensive climate action would accordingly make sense twice over for the Indian subcontinent.

Commercial self-interest will also see to a steady decarbonisation of global markets. The costs of clean energy technologies are declining to historically unprecedented lows, rendering an industrial transition not only plausible, but actually more profitable. Since 2008, the bill for electric cars’ batteries has decreased by a whooping 80% globally. In northern Europe, the costs associated with wind energy have halved in only the past three years. Meanwhile, solar price modules have fallen by 75% since 2009. All this while the costs of fossil fuel production are on the rise.

Air pollution in Beijing. Attribution: Way2Time, Air Pollution in Beijing, China.

Air pollution in Beijing. Attribution: Way2Time, Air Pollution in Beijing, China.

And it all only gets better: the more renewable technologies we build, the cheaper they get. It is estimated that every doubling of installed capacity decreases prices by some 20% due to improvements in technology and economies of scale. Firms will be incentivised to invest in these innovative sustainable industries, and a Trump Presidency is unlikely to affect that: energy decisions typically last for decades, and a four-year mandate will not weigh in such long-term investments.

These epochal changes will curb the already plummeting demand for oil, and lead us towards the tipping point where opting for clean energy is not only environmentally sound, but economically imperative.

This, to be clear, is not to trivialise Trump-fuelled anxiety over the survival of our species. The prospect of the world’s second largest polluter ‘free-riding’ on the climate efforts of others is no laughing matter. Even if the incoming administration doesn’t live up to its promise to “cancel” the Paris deal (i.e. withdraw from the international accord), it certainly will not galvanise action. But this need not be the fiasco many fear; commercial and national self-interest, coupled with the reasonably loose structure of the Paris accord, will incentivise the market as well as the world’s largest emitters of green house gases to remain on the path towards decarbonisation.

If anything, Mr. Trump’s brand of protectionist, inward-looking foreign policy will mark the beginning of the end of American leadership in global affairs. A Trump Presidency may be to the United States what the Suez Crisis was to Britain and the Gothic War to the Roman Empire; it could mark the beginning of the collapse of American imperialism and hegemony in the world.

Interested in learning about the prospect of criminal liability for sustainable climate governance? We suggest these selected articles from our past issues:                                                        

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