The Paris deal created a global gift economy for carbon cuts. Here’s how we make it work

Tim Rayner
Dec 14, 2015 · 6 min read
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The Paris climate deal is a major success for international diplomacy and hopefully for the planet. But many environmentalists and climate activists are disappointed by the deal, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough.

We don’t need to read between the lines of the agreement to see its flaws. As things stand, the pledges made by the 195 signatories to cut emissions don’t get us out of the danger zone. They are likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3° above pre-industrial levels, punching through the 2° threshold that scientists say is required to stave off the worst effects of global warming.

To make things worse, the emissions reduction targets are not legally binding. The stipulation to make the targets legally binding was removed from the document at the insistence of the US delegation at Paris. Had they stayed in, the deal would have been a sham, as the Obama Administration has zero chance of getting the US Congress to accept legally binding cuts.

The implication of this is the future governments of signatory countries can renege on their commitments without legal repercussions. One can imagine a Republican President in 2017 blowing the whole deal off without the UN being able to do a thing about it.

But renegers won’t get off without any repercussions whatsoever. The Paris agreement includes a review mechanism that obliges all parties to submit to a global stocktake every five years, starting in 2023. The five-yearly review cycle does carry legal force. So renegers will be outed and shamed, even if the UN cannot hold them to their pledges.

The review system is more significant than it may appear. Thanks to the transparency created by the system, the entire world will be able to track which countries are contributing to the climate struggle and which countries are failing to do so. Seeing as the world has now committed itself to trying to keep temperature rises below 1.5° above pre-industrial levels, refusing to contribute essentially amounts to giving the finger to the rest of the human race. Such action will carry consequences, political, economic, and otherwise.

On a positive note, the review system will bring the transition leaders to the fore. Countries that work hard to contribute to the zero-carbon goal by making deep cuts to their emissions will stand out for their contributions. In light of the noble cause of averting climate catastrophe, their actions will assume a heightened significance. These cuts are gifts to a future humanity.

This kind of system, where reputation rewards accrue to agents on the basis of their intentional contributions, or gifts, is the hallmark of a gift economy.

The Paris agreement did not create a bureaucratic mechanism for directing global emissions reductions. It created a gift economy based on carbon cuts. This system could work brilliantly, catalyzing a virtuous competition around emissions cuts, while minimizing the political backlash from conservatives. But to make it work, we need to understand how a gift economy operates.

Gift economies thrive under transparent conditions. When everyone can see what people are contributing to a project or cause, it creates an informal reward system that motivates people to make more generous contributions. The people who contribute the most win the praise and esteem of the community. Over time, this helps create a competitive gifting dynamic within the community as leaders to try to out give their opponents.

The Potlatch ceremony practiced by the traditional peoples of the Pacific northwest coast of the United States offers an example of this dynamic. Chiefs would host a Potlatch by gathering their tribe together and presenting them with a massive gift of food, weapons, furs, and more. The scale of the gift was crucial. The more the chief gave, the greater the reputation he earned. For chiefs, building a reputation through gifts was the whole point of the ceremony. Each chief competed with the other chiefs in the region to develop a stellar reputation and thereby cast the others in their shadow.

The Moka exchange of the Papua New Guinea highlanders is a slightly different model. Here, the gifting takes place between community leaders called Big Men. The exchange itself is a kind of ‘gift off’. Each Big Man tries to out do the other by offering a greater gift. The one who gives the greatest gift wins the competition and earns Moka, or dignity. The one who gives the lesser gift must repay the difference at a future exchange at peril of suffering a loss of face, potentially becoming the opposite of a Big Man, a Rubbish Man.

The twist in the Moka model is that the gifts are crowdsourced. Big Men are not rich, but extremely well-connected. Prior to the exchange, they travel about their communities, sourcing contributions from family, friends, and debtors. If they succeed in the Moka exchange, the reputational reward is shared by everyone who contributed to it.

The reputational dynamic of traditional gift economies is alive and well in the digital era. Gift economies thrive in online environments, where transparent participation is the way that things get done. Open source software development is a classic example. In his seminal book on open source programming, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999), Eric S. Raymond argues that hackers are motivated by desire for ‘egoboo’, the pleasure we get from being noticed for voluntary contributions. By creating transparency about contributions, open source projects like Linux create ‘an efficient market in “egoboo”, connecting the selfishness of individual hackers … to difficult ends that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation’.

What does all this have to do with the Paris agreement and the struggle to control global warming? The Paris agreement laid the foundations for a global gift economy based in emissions cuts. This hinges on the review system, which creates transparency about countries’ contributions to the global zero carbon goal. Since emissions cuts are not legally binding, countries cannot be formally penalized for failing to contribute to this goal. But such countries will quickly become the ‘Rubbish Men’ of the international community unless they clean up their act. Meanwhile, countries that demonstrate their commitment to the zero carbon goal by leading with major emissions reduction initiatives will stand out as virtuous agents in an epic struggle to save the planet. Their positive actions will be perceived as gifts to the planet aimed at safeguarding the well being of future generations.

An internationally competitive gift economy based on carbon cuts could inspire whole populations to join the struggle, reducing the need for political leaders to legislate these cuts. To leverage the opportunities here, leaders need to start thinking like Big Men. To ensure that their nations stand out as virtuous agents at each stocktake, leaders should actively solicit the support of their constituencies, encouraging entrepreneurs, innovators, and ordinary citizens to do what they can to contribute to the national effort. Mindful of the pleasure people derive from being noticed for their contributions, leaders should try to make these various gifts visible to all. By creating transparency around the contributions that different parties make to emissions cuts at the national level, it should be possible to create a gifting dynamic around cleantech innovation, fueled by a mix of competitive spirit and patriotic pride.

The ink is barely dry on the Paris agreement. Yet the gifting dynamic implicit in the agreement is clear. The motivational incentives and system of psychological rewards that the agreement sets in motion will undoubtedly help reshape our economies and societies as profoundly as the transition to clean energy itself. It might seem far-fetched, but it is not impossible to imagine that carbon-cutting gifting games may one day become as popular as the Olympic games are today. When social entrepreneurs and innovators are celebrated on a par with athletes and sporting heroes, we will know we have changed the world for the better, and perhaps even saved it in the process.

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