Economists frequently tout carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems as the holy grail of climate mitigation efforts. Yet, a challenging political environment created by the idea that they lack public support has thus far made the policies infeasible. Understanding which policies are most feasible—and how to make the best policies feasible—would be important to understand when building a plan to confront climate change. A new paper in the journal One Earth creates a framework for doing just that.
“When considering a climate change policy—whether it be implementing a carbon tax or encouraging electric vehicle use or the many policies in between—lawmakers often ask if it can be done technologically, and what impact it will have on the economy,” says Kim Wolske, a research assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy and a co-author of the paper. “What are not formally considered are the behavioral, cultural and social factors at play. Can a political body get the consensus to pass such a proposal? Will there be consumer demand? It’s these types of questions surrounding the context of a proposal that can make or break a policies’ success, but that are often not given their full weight.”
The paper argues that this type of thinking needs to be integrated into climate modeling efforts, such as those that currently underpin International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. Wolske and her co-authors unpack a framework for considering policies that ultimately allow the proposals to be successful in mitigating climate change:
- Technical Potential: The reduction in the drivers of climate change that would result if an initiative to reduce emissions were fully realized.
- Initiative Feasibility: The likelihood that an initiative will be adopted and implemented.
- Behavioral Plasticity: The extent to which the target of the initiative yields the intended behavior changes.
For example, consider an initiative to encourage the purchasing of electric vehicles. Typical modeling efforts might only focus on the technical potential of EVs to achieve emissions reductions, based on assumptions that EVs will be fully adopted by consumers within a given time frame. Wolske and colleagues argue that the actual mitigation achieved depends on whether the initiative can be implemented as intended (Initiative Feasibility) and once implemented, whether consumers will buy and use the new cars as expected (Behavioral Plasticity). Initiative feasibility can include both government and private sector initiatives to incentivize the production, purchase and use of EVs, such as through tax credits and publicly available charging stations. Behavioral plasticity then looks at whether drivers use EVs as true substitutes for conventional vehicles, as intended, or merely supplemental vehicles, which would have lower mitigation benefits. This example demonstrates how the factors interact in this highly complex environment.
“With climate change being such a complex challenge, with equally complex solutions, it’s important to bring various disciplines—disciplines not brought into the process in the past—into the solution-building process today,” says Wolske. “This framework helps integrate those different streams of knowledge.”