Incorporating Feasibility into Climate Mitigation Analysis

Feb 8, 2023

The case for a prompt reduction in major greenhouse gas emissions has become increasingly clear, but climate change mitigation policies are falling short of their goals. Feasible climate mitigationa recent comment in Nature Climate Change co-authored by Vanderbilt Law Professor Michael Vandenbergh – urges scientists and policymakers to focus on the feasibility of climate initiatives to maximize the effectiveness of their efforts.

Here are three key takeaways that scientists and policymakers alike can use to account for the importance of feasibility and develop feasible climate mitigation strategies:

A New Emphasis on Feasibility. The authors argue that the limited incorporation of feasibility considerations in climate policy analysis may have delayed the adoption of measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which subsidizes low-carbon activities rather than taxing or regulating high-carbon activities. Taxing and regulating carbon emissions have been the preferred measures in many disciplines for decades, but the subsidy-based approach of the IRA proved more politically feasible than recent alternatives.

Some climate advocates use the need for prompt, major emissions reductions as a reason to downplay feasibility concerns and pursue ideal policies, but “[a] major cost of not developing such a framework for feasibility assessments is a focus on policies that are effective in theory but either cannot be adopted or have less than expected impact when implemented,” the authors write. “This could further delay mitigation and risk reduction.” In short, the urgency and size of the reductions required requires less emphasis on approaches that are ideal in theory but infeasible in practice.

Moving from Trajectories to Adoption and Implementation. The authors note that the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) incorporates feasibility into the analysis of emissions trajectories and diffusion of emissions-reducing technologies but providing analyses that assist policymakers in selecting the most promising policies will require incorporating feasibility into the assessment of specific policy options, often in the short time windows available to policymakers. Accounting for feasibility will require improving not only assessments of which policies can be adopted, but also which can be implemented, and which will induce the desired actions by the policy targets.

Developing the Feasibility Research Base. The authors suggest that developing feasibility assessments that are the most valuable for policymakers will require an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research that expands on the factors included in political economy (e.g., incorporating political psychology to account for the role of partisan identity in climate policy acceptance), incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods, provides processes for researchers and policymakers to share insights, addresses regional variations, and includes feasibility assessments in research and policy reports.

Research that accounts for feasibility “can provide insights that enable decision makers to rely on more than intuition when confronting policy choices under tight time constraints, and can help advocacy groups identify achievable goals,” the authors write.

“Science can help,” they write. “There is a long tradition of research on policy implementation and a more recent one, implementation science, in public health.” Effective interactions between researchers and policymakers can improve the rigor of research endeavors and strengthen the ability of change agents to persuade people and organizations to act.

Feasible climate mitigation, co-authored by Paul C. Stern, Thomas DietzKristian S. Nielsen, Wei Peng, and Michael P. Vandenbergh, is available online at Nature Climate Change.

The Energy, Environment and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School

The growing emphasis on feasibility is a trend in legal, policy, and social science research, and Vanderbilt Law School’s Energy, Environment and Land Use (EELU) Program has been a leader in accounting for feasibility in research and in the classroom. The Program’s Climate Change Research Network focuses on using social and behavioral science to develop viable options to reduce household carbon emissions, and the Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review (ELPAR), a hybrid Vanderbilt class and journal published by the Environmental Law Institute, enables students to work with experts to select the top environmental law and policy articles each year based on the feasibility and creativity of their recommendations.

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