IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change Irreversibility

Irreversibility is an important aspect of the climate change issue, with implications for mitigation and adaptation responses. The response of the climate system to anthropogenic forcing is likely to be irreversible over human time scales, and much of the damage is likely to be irreversible even over longer time scales. Mitigation and adaptation will often require investments involving sunk (irreversible) costs in new technologies and practices (Sections 2.2.3, 11.6.5; IPCC, 2007b, Chapter 17). Decision-makers will need to take into account these environmental, socio-economic and technological irreversibilities in deciding on the timing and scale of mitigation action. Public good

The climate system tends to be overused (excessive GHG concentrations) because of its natural availability as a resource whose access is open to all free of charge. In contrast, climate protection tends to be underprovided. In general, the benefits of avoided climate change are spatially indivisible, freely available to all (non-excludability), irrespective of whether one is contributing to the regime costs or not. As regime benefits by one individual (nation) do not diminish their availability to others (non-rivalry), it is difficult to enforce binding commitments on the use of the climate system[4] (Kaul et al., 1999; 2003). This may result in ‘free riding’, a situation in which mitigation costs are borne by some individuals (nations) while others (the ‘free riders’) succeed in evading them but still enjoy the benefits of the mitigation commitments of the former.

The incentive to evade mitigation costs increases with the degree of substitutability among individual mitigation efforts (mitigation is largely additive) and with the inequality of the distribution of net benefits among regime participants. However, individual mitigation costs decrease with efficient mitigation actions undertaken by others. Because mitigation efforts are additive, the larger the number of participants, the smaller the individual cost of providing the public good – in this case, climate system stabilization. Cooperation requires the sharing of both information on climate change and technologies through technology transfers as well as the coordination of national actions lest the efforts required by the climate regime be underprovided.

  1. ^  Resulting in a prisoners’ dilemma situation because of insufficient incentives to cooperate.