Back in 2009, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on economic governance. Ostrom was noted for her research on how the “tragedy of the commons” could be overcome through cooperative management from those who use these common resources (e.g. fish stocks, pasture land, ground water). Williamson, in a different vein, was lauded for his theoretical work on how businesses themselves, in certain situations, are better placed to resolve conflicts of interest internally rather than through the market itself (i.e. to make it rather than source it). (Read the Nobel Prize press release if you’d like to learn more).
In the context of climate change, Ostrom’s and Williamson’s research is particularly insightful. If Ostrom’s research is to be believed, it lends hope to the possibility that the world’s leaders can find an adequate solution for addressing the effects of climate change — both in terms of adapting to the changes we are already experiencing as well as mitigating future climate change. Williamson’s theory forces us to ask which types of institutional arrangements (e.g. within businesses, between businesses, between businesses and consumers, via government regulation, etc) would be most likely to produce a climate-smart solution.
This year’s negotiations have already been written off by many media and policy pundits (read BBC, ICTSD, Xinhua or Sky News to name only a few). The Kyoto Protocol, the current international climate agreement whose successor is being debated now, is set to expire in 2012. Thus, climate negotiators have one more year to find a replacement solution (the 2011 negotiation will be hosted by South Africa.)
But many businesses and countries are not waiting around for a global agreement. Rather, they are passing laws domestically to address their perceived needs. (Read this recent Reuters article for examples of what they are doing.) And the emerging economies, especially China, are playing ever more important roles as power brokers within the negotiations. And as competitors for the next generation of green technologies. Also, businesses are coming together to either call for better dialogue with regulators or to demand further investment in green growth.
Climate change presents several unique challenges: its scale as a “common good” is unparalleled; the distribution of its impacts is not shared equitably; its future impacts can only be estimated rather than calculated. However, it seems that Ostrom’s and Williamson’s Nobel Prize-winning work may shed some answers in how climate solutions may be refined and who may be involved in finding a potential solution.
For businesses, the necessary incentive could come from reduced costs to their supply chain, improved risk management (e.g. of accessing key resources or markets) or potential reputational gains in the eyes of key stakeholders.
This blog post also appears on the Glasshouse Partnership blog.