Regime Effectiveness of Climate Protection

Adapting Elinor Ostrom's Institutional Design Principles

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

41 Pages, Grade: 1,5

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical framework.
2.1 The climate system as a CPR-problem?
2.2 Individuals and states as rational actors?
2.3 Logic of collective action
2.4 The effectiveness of climate protection

3 The institutional design principles in climate protection
3.1 Clearly definedboundaries
3.2 Monitoring
3.3 Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
3.4 Collective-choice arrangements
3.5 Minimal recognition of rights to organize
3.6 Conflict resolution mechanisms
3.7 Graduated sanctions
3.8 Nested enterprises
3.9 Summary

4 Extending the design principles
4.1 Leadership
4.2 Shared norms

5 Conclusion

1 Introduction

“For two decades, governments have struggled to craft a strong, integrated and comprehensive regulatory systemfor managing climate change ”

(Keohane/Victor 2010: 2).

The climate is very likely warming due to the additional anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases (cf. IPCC 2007)1. Consequences - such as a loss of biodiversity, deforestation, desertification and extreme weather events - are likely to increase. Hence, humanity is challenged to reduce the total amount of emitted greenhouse gases (GHG). The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a United Nations' agreement upon preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (United Nations 1992: Article 2). The current treaty, the Kyoto Protocol (KP), is ending in 2012. The KP reduction goals are low - the overall reductions of Annex I states are 5% below 1990 level (cf. United Nations 1998). This is likely not sufficient to keep global warming within the limit of two degrees Celsius average temperature rise, a limit which is widely agreed upon2. In the Bali Action Plan the conference of the parties decided to set up a Post-Kyoto Protocol at its fifteenth session in Copenhagen (cf. United Nations 2007: § 1). But the treaty did not become reality. To date, the international political measures to protect the climate by reducing emissions are probably not preventing a “dangerous” climate change if the danger limit is set at two degrees average temperature rise. So how can the climate effectively be protected?

There is a promising model of successful governance of common pool resources at a lesser level. Elinor Ostrom's institutional design principles have been derived from the study of institutions that govern local and regional common pool resources (cf. Ostrom 1990). But the climate3 is a global resource. It has not yet been proofed that successful, sustainable resource management on a global scale can conform to Ostrom's principles. Until the climate is effectively protected a proof cannot be derived from the analysis of its governance. This work is based on the assumption that Ostrom's principles can provide valuable insights toward effective climate protection.

In the remainder I will proceed as follows. In section two I set the theoretical framework and shortly present Elinor Ostrom's understanding of her principles in general. I discuss how a) the climate can be understood as a common pool resource; b) Ostrom's broad conception of rationality fits both individual actors’ and states’ behavior; and c) effective the regime for climate protection is. In section three I analyze the regime for climate protection principle by principle. The structure for each of them is: introduce, explain its function, adapt where necessary, examine implementation and formulate a thesis regarding the effectiveness of the climate protection regime.

I show that the regime for climate protection shares most of the design principles and hence is likely to succeed. The principles largely lacking implementation are a) congruence between appropriation, provision and regional conditions and b) graduated sanctions. Because climate protection is not yet effective I examine possible solutions by including two further design principles. Because the conflict resolution mechanisms on the global scale do not solve the basic conflict of the actual distribution of shared burdens, I argue that either 'leadership' or increasingly 'shared norms' can facilitate an effective follow-up treaty.

2 Theoretical framework

Elinor Ostrom's analysis was based on case studies of small to medium scale common pool resources (CPR) from Switzerland, Japan, Spain and the Philippines, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Canada and others. These cases were selected to give “clear information about processes involved in (1) governing long-enduring CPRs, (2) transforming existing institutional arrangements, and (3) failing to overcome continued CPR problems” (Ostrom 1990: 26, 27). Developing further a framework Ronald Oakerson had prepared (cf. Oakerson 1990), Ostrom condensed eight central institutional design principles for a successful governance of CPRs4. For Ostrom a design principle is “an essential element or condition that helps to account for the success of these institutions in sustaining the CPR and gaining the compliance ofgenerations after generations of appropriators to the rules in use ” (Ostrom 1990: 90).

These are meant as design principles rather than a blue print (cf. Ostrom 2008). The principles all together do not necessarily result in a specific type of institution. There is a variety of institutions such as hierarchies, markets, and community self-governances that may lead to successful sustainable resource management (cf. Dietz et al. 2003: 8). “Robust, long-term institutions are characterized by most of the design principles. [...] Fragile institutions tend to be characterized by only some of these design principles. Failed institutions are characterized by very few of these principles ” (Ostrom2002: 10).

Hence, I assume that - also on the global scale - a CPR regime is the more likely to be successful the more design principles are implemented. Before these design principles can be adapted to the global level, I see some difficulties. First, her principles are regarding common pool resources. Is the global climate a CPR? Second, the actors involved in the original set are individuals or households. Do states and other collective actors involved in climate protection behave similarly? Third, what is the logic of collective action? How can free riding be solved? I discuss each in turn.

2.1 The climate system as a CPR-problem?

Why can climate protection be treated as a CPR-problem? A CPR is characterized by a) subtractability or rivalness and b) a difficulty of excluding potential beneficiaries (cf. Dolšak/Ostrom 2003: 7). Regarding the global climate Jouni Paavola (2008) argued two points: a) rivalry is not regarding the direct benefits from the global climate but the pollution of the atmospheric (and other) sinks. Because there is a total limit of pollution5 the climate system can absorb without collapsing, every pollution unit emitted is no more available to other users; b) the difficulty of excluding potential beneficiaries is that wherever a GHG unit is emitted it affects the global climate. The climate system has no national borders but protection is provided by national governments because they have the “mandatory power to establish and enforce regulations” (cf. Paavola 2008: 327). Due to the anarchic structure of the international system it is difficult to exclude certain states from emitting GHG. So the climate can be understood as a common pool resource, a rival sink with a difficulty of excluding potential users.

2.2 Individuals and states as rational actors?

How similarly do collective actors such as states and other actors involved in climate protection behave to individuals and households? In her work on “governing the commons” Elinor Ostrom used a broad conception of rational actors. “Four internal variables - expected benefits, expected costs, internal norms, and discount rates - affect an individual's choice of strategies” (Ostrom 1990: 37).

Although collective actors and thereby more pluralistic than an individual, states are largely seen as rational actors. Even if the main goals which states pursue differ in the mainstream international relations theories, many converge in assuming that states behave rationally. Neo-realist John Mearsheimer assumes that states act rationally in gaining relative power (cf. Mearsheimer 2001). Liberalist Andrew Moravcsik assumes pluralistic societal actors that “on average” behave rationally (Moravcsik 1997: 516). Institutionalist Robert Keohane argues from a rational-choice point of view (cf. Keohane 1983). Although these theorists reach quite different conclusions, their understanding of states as rational actors fits Ostrom's assumption about actors’ strategic choices.

Similar to these understandings, I assume that states behave rationally in their choices of strategies according to the expected utility. In other words, they evaluate means and ends and choose the option which promises the best relation of costs and benefits (cf. Tsebelis 1990). Moreover I assume some knowledge about the probability that a certain outcome will become reality. Taking into account the risk that it will not happen, states decide according to the utility they expect to gain. The probability a rational actor will assume depends on her knowledge of past events. The further in the future any expected outcome will pay off, the more insecure her knowledge about this probability becomes. That is why a discount rate diminishes the expected future outcome.

The broad understanding of rationality that Ostrom applied allows the inclusion of norms that shape interests according to the constructivist perspective (cf. Wendt 1992). I assume that whether economic growth or climate protection6 is rated higher is not exclusively a question of rationality but also a normative one. Taking into account that future outcomes are risky, the value an actor assigns to a certain outcome also depends on the norms she has. Although economic growth might be more likely to happen than climate protection, some actors (e.g. green parties) consider it more important. Furthermore, the expected utility depends on knowledge. Sir Nicholas Stern (2007) has shown that - accepting the discount rate he set - a climate protection is cheaper to be done by now than in future. Without this knowledge a rational actor who values economic growth higher than climate protection would never expect a higher utility from the latter. The utility a rational actor assigns to a certain outcome depends on this knowledge and norm-based rating. But the choice of a mean for this cognitively, normatively set end is then a question of rationality.

A government consists of several rational actors and the accumulated will of the government consists of their power and position. Beyond this, I assume that the order of preferences of collective actors differs according to the political system. The respective decision-making procedures define the collective choice. Any sort of monocracy can define its preferences mainly top-down. In democracies the structure of preferences also depends on the bottom-up accumulated will of the majority.

The concept of a rationally behaving state that sets its preferences according to norms and knowledge is certainly a real complexity reducing theoretical construct. It is an instrument that helps to derive some insights from Ostrom's work into the global climate CPR. Hence, I assume that states choose their strategies according to expected benefits, expected costs, internal norms, and discount rates - just as Ostrom assumed for households.

2.3 Logic of collective action

Generally, in collective actions such as the protection of the global climate, the risk of free riding is a central problem. Free riding means gaining the benefits of a provision of common goods without contributing to the costs of it (cf. Dolšak/Ostrom 2003: 8). Individual rational maximization of utility can lead to an overuse of the resource, an outcome that is collectively suboptimal and thereby non-rational. To avoid free riding and facilitate a collective provision of a good there must be an effective solution. Garrett Hardin named such a solution “mutually agreed upon coercion” (Hardin 1968: 1247). Mancur Olson (1968) presented selective incentives as a solution for the provision of a collective good. Ostrom's design principles are a detailed set of characteristics that effectively sustained common pool resource share - conditions to avoid free riding and create a socially optimal, collectively rational outcome7.

2.4 The effectiveness of climate protection

Before discussing Ostrom's principles in detail it is worthwhile to have a look at how >effective the regime for climate protection already is. First, what is the regime for climate protection? I do not dive into the discussion of the meaning of regime. I refer to an international regime of climate protection as a set of “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue- area” (Krasner 1982a: 185). Robert Keohane and David Victor (2010) observe not a single regime but a regime complex for climate protection. They see many sub-regimes that do not cover the whole range of climate protection such as UN Legal Regimes (e.g. UNFCC), UN Agencies (e.g. UNDP, UNEP), Expert Assessments (e.g. IPPC reports), the Montreal Protocol, multilateral development banks (e.g. World Bank), clubs (e.g. G20) and other uni- and bilateral agreements. According to their analysis the UNFCCC could work as an “umbrella” and as the source for an “integrated and comprehensive policy regime” (ibid.: 25). Yet climate protection is not that comprehensive regime but a regime complex consisting of the above mentioned parts and organizations. In my analysis I focus on the UNFCC because it could function as a comprehensive umbrella. Second, what does effectiveness mean? Some understand effectiveness as a shift in behavior in “a way as to eliminate or substantially ameliorate the problem that led to its creation” (cf. Young/Levy 1999: 1). Some refer to regime effectiveness as “the capacity of the regime to solve the environmental problems it is meant to solve” (cf. Hisschemoller/Gupta 1999). Similar to these understandings, I refer to effectiveness of the regime complex for climate protection as the capacity to avoid a “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (United Nations 1992: Article 2) through pollution by CO2 or equivalents.

Third, there are some empirical differences along the different sub-regimes of the regime complex for climate protection. Since it came into force in 1989 the Montreal Protocol effectively managed to stabilize the amount of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in the atmosphere (cf. World Meteorological Organization 2007). The other GHG are met by the UNFCCC under which the Kyoto Protocol (KP) is a legally binding treaty for reducing the emissions of GHG. But the KP did not have an overall reduction effect. The total amount of GHG in the atmosphere constantly rises (cf. IPCC 2007). The states that assigned a reduction of GHG (KP Annex B) have on average stabilized their emissions but still are not on track to meet their reduction goals. The states that have not undersigned any reduction goals (KP Non-Annex B) have on average augmented their emissions (cf. Le Quéré et al. 2009). This results in an overall rise in GHG emissions.

To avoid the difficult discourse about which limit of GHG emissions is adequate, I measure the effectiveness of the regime of climate protection by the average temperature rise limit of two degrees Celsius. This limit is currently undersigned by more than 120 states in the Copenhagen Accord8. Although the accord is neither legally binding nor formally part of the UNFCCC, it is the political will of the majority of UNFCCC states. I take this as a politically widely agreed upon limit with which to measure the effectiveness of avoiding a 'dangerous' climatic change. Recent research has shown that the voluntary reduction goals assigned in the Copenhagen Accord would lead to an average temperature rise of 3.5° Celsius (cf. Wicke/Schellnhuber/Klingenfeld 2010). Therefore, the UNFCCC is not effective according to the temperature goal.

In the following analysis I focus on the UNFCCC as a part of the regime complex for climate change that is not effective, searching for the reasons by adapting Ostrom's principles to the global level. On the way I will have a short look at the differences that made the Montreal Protocol more effective.

3 The institutional design principles in climate protection

Following I present the original institutional design principles that Ostrom (1990) has pointed out in her work “Governing the Commons”. I discuss every principle by a) citing Ostrom's understanding, b) illustrating its meaning, and c) explaining its function for the climate protection as a CPR governance. Where necessary I adapt the principles to the characteristics of the climate and international political system (d). In a fifth step I examine to which degree the principle is already implemented in the UNFCCC (e). Following I formulate a thesis regarding the effectiveness of the Convention (f).

3.1 Clearly defined boundaries

“Individuals or households 'who have rights to withdraw resource unitsfrom the CPR must be clearly defined as must the boundaries of the CPR itself”

(Ostrom 1990: 91).

Illustration: When looking at any CPR management it is a crucial step to define what is used, how, and by whom. Without a defined area of use and users no institution can be created to facilitate cooperation. It might be necessary to exclude potential beneficiaries or an exploitive use.

Imagine a lake with two tribes of fishermen. Both are dependent on the food the fish provide. One tribe lives in a village close to the lake and fishes during the day. I call them the day clan. The other is living deeper in the woods and comes out to fish by night - the night clan. Due to their culture the two tribes have never met. As they each fish, the natural recreation rate of the fish is surpassed. Both tribes catch less and less fish, but they do not know why. It is clear that both tribes will fail in sustaining the fish population if they never understand that they are not the only fishermen. The users must be clearly defined. The entire group who uses the resource must be identified. One option might be to exclude one clan.

Now, imagine that the CPR is not a lake but the mouth of a river. There is just one tribe fishing. They specialize in catching salmon. Over time the salmon diminish. An imaginable reason might be that the tribe prefers large salmon, the ones who spawn upriver. Without any offspring the salmon die out. Once again successful CPR management requires a clear definition. In this case it must be defined how many salmon can be caught without major harm to the entire population. This would be one of the physical boundaries of the CPR itself that defines a sustainable use. There also can be temporal or spatial boundaries. This tribe might catch other types of fish when the salmon come to spawn. Or they could fish within only one half of the river to let enough of the salmon escape. These imagined examples may provide some understanding of a clear definition of CPR and its users. And it leads me to the function that this principle is to take for successful CPR management.

Function: The physical constraints of a natural resource such as the rate of renewability determine the amount of use that does not deteriorate the resource over time. Or, in economic terms, there is a maximum sustainable yield that defines the point after which the aggregate level of revenue diminishes (cf. Dietz et al. 2003). These natural constraints must be defined clearly to make a sustainable use feasible at all. If the limit is unknown it can be exceeded too easily. The definition itself requires a deep understanding of the nature of the resource. Defining and understanding the limits of the resource function as prerequisites for not overusing the resource. The same is true of the user group that withdraws resource units. Open access easily leads to overuse. Everyone can withdraw as much as he wants until the rate of renewability is exceeded. Some might even invest in sustaining the resource while others grab the benefits, the classic free riding problem. Hence, identifying the entire user group is a prerequisite for arranging some sort of social agreement, rule or institution that ensures that the natural limits of the resource are not surpassed. One possible solution might be an exclusion mechanism (cf. Ostrom 1990; Oakerson 1990; Keohane/Victor 2010). Excluding potential beneficiaries can eliminate open access and the overuse that results from the absence of any restriction. This form of institution definitely requires power. By setting clear limits of both use and user group that meet the specific needs to sustain the resource, a basic task is accomplished. What does this mean for the global climate as a CPR?


1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

2 More than 120 states undersigned the Copenhagen Accord which sets the 2°C average temperature rise limit. See (accessed on 24.05.2010)

3 The IPCC defines the climate system as “the highly complex system consisting of five major components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the land surface and the biosphere, and the interactions between them” (IPCC 2007: 79).

4 Ostrom' institutional design principles are: clearly defined boundaries, monitoring, congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions, collective-choice arrangements, nested enterprises, minimal recognition of rights to organize, conflict resolution mechanisms and graduated sanctions - a detailed description follows in section 3.

5 Although widely discussed but still an exemplary limit is 450ppm (cf. Graßl et al. 2003)

6 Due to the current production structure which is mainly based on fossil energy use and by growth emits more GHG this seems an adequate example.

7 I want to stress here that in contrast to Hardin's analysis Ostrom sees cooperation much more likely to happen in CPR problems and provides empirical data (cf. Ostrom 1990).

8 See (accessed on 24.05.2010)

41 of 41 pages


Regime Effectiveness of Climate Protection
Adapting Elinor Ostrom's Institutional Design Principles
University of Bremen  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
File size
600 KB
Common Pool Resources, UNFCCC, Climate, Greenhouse gas emissions, institutional design principles, Elinor Ostrom, Kyoto Protocol, effectiveness
Quote paper
Nils Droste (Author), 2010, Regime Effectiveness of Climate Protection , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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