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Unilateral Climate Action and Collective Change: What Can University Divestment Do?

Smokestack PhotoBy Daniel Carpenter-Gold — June 2 at 5:40pm

This blog post contains the views of the author alone, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Professor Coleman or ELR staff.

“What difference do you think you can make? One man in all this madness?”

-First Sergeant Edward Welsh, The Thin Red Line

Scholars have come to recognize climate change as “the quintessential global-scale collective action problem”—so large that even superpowers cannot tackle it unilaterally. But after two decades of painfully slow multilateral negotiations, commentators have begun reexamining the potential for action by individual states. Among them is James Coleman, Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law, whose article, “Unilateral Climate Regulation,” we had the privilege of publishing in the latest volume of the Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Unilateral action, Professor Coleman’s argument goes, can have a disproportionately large and positive impact in two ways. First, it can provide an effective model to states that might not have the wherewithal to design their own mitigation strategies. For example, if the United States designs a simple, transparent system for regulating greenhouse-gas emissions other countries can copy it, thereby lowering the costs of implementing their own climate policies.

Second, countries may implement policies contingent on other states’ mitigation efforts—a “matching contribution” approach familiar to anyone who has ever sat through an NPR pledge drive. In this scenario, the US might agree to implement policies to lower its carbon emission by, say, 1 billion units, provided that China do the same. This effectively doubles the benefit to China of reducing its greenhouse-gas emission: at the cost of 1 billion units in reductions, China would receive the benefit of a 2 billion-unit reduction in global emissions.

Perhaps the most striking example of unilateral climate action is the just-released EPA decision to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. Alongside the obvious benefit of eliminating a substantial source of CO2 emissions, the new rule may provide a model for other countries to limit their own coal pollution. This effect will likely be all the stronger because of the visibility and importance of the United States to other states.

But Professor Coleman’s point also applies to smaller-scale efforts to tackle climate change. One example of action stalling on the perennial question, “what can one actor do?” is the divestment effort at Harvard. As President Drew Faust put it in an open letter to the community last October, “Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies. . . . Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies.”

Professor Coleman’s arguments regarding unilateral state action suggest at least a partial alternative, where Harvard would use informational effects and matching commitments to give its investment decisions greater clout.

First, divestment could improve the information available to other institutions. As an example, imagine that the university decides to divest from any energy company with less than $3 billion invested in renewables and reinvest it sustainably: Harvard would first determine what counts as renewable energy investment, then compile a list of energy companies’ investment in renewables, then identify other, “greener” investments. By making this research publicly available, Harvard could spare other institutions also interested in divestment the cost of making a similar investigation. Ultimately, this would tend to increase the number of divestors, magnifying Harvard’s impact.

The second strategy that Professor Coleman’s article could suggest to divestors is to avoid collective-action problems by implementing matching commitments. This approach, termed “strategic matching” in economics, envisions a large group of institutions all agreeing to divest if each other institution does so as well—just as many treaties do not go into effect until a certain number of state parties ratify them. The advantage to this approach is that no institution would be required to take any action until the group formed, at which point the aggregate benefit (in terms of pressure on the industry) will be many times larger than for any individual divestment action.

It is interesting to note that these strategies are used by the two responsible-investment organizations to which Harvard has recently become a signatory: the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). (It should be noted that many faculty members disagree with this approach.)The PRI Association requires that signatories to the PRI complete a self-assessment on their consideration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in their investment policy and then publishes a compilation of the results, along with an annual report analyzing trends in and case studies of ESG-conscious investment. In other words, they allow institutions to increase the impact of their ESG-focused decisions by providing information which both signals their commitment to responsible investing and is useful to other investors.

The CDP, on the other hand, focuses on information about companies in which its signatories may be invested. It allows signatories to endorse surveys of corporations’ environmental policies, and then provides the resultant data only to those organizations which agreed to endorse (and thereby lend the CDP reputational force). By withholding information until an organization endorses, the CDP essentially implements an asymmetrical matching-commitment strategy: it increases its own impact by requiring its signatories to help gather information before they get the results.

The lesson here is that there’s no such thing as acting alone. Every forward step encourages others, and by taking advantage of this any actor—whether a country, a university, or a single person—can have a much greater impact than its limited resources would suggest.

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