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Preferences for climate policy

Research project
Active research
Project size
5 500 089
Project period
2019 - 2021
Project owner
Department of Economics

Short description

This project concerns the willingness to pay of households in Sweden, China the US, and citizens in other EU countries, for more climate friendly energy. We will study changes in attitudes over time by comparing the results of this project with our earlier study in 2009 (Carlsson et al., 2012). Another purpose is to investigate how much citizens are prepared to pay for their country to be a front-runner (even if other countries do not follow suit) and how that willingness to pay is affected by the likelihood of actually influencing other countries to become more climate friendly. We use a survey targeting a representative selection of households. The project is a collaboration between environmental economists at the University of Gothenburg with researchers in the US and China.

Our project relate to the aim of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C (Höhne et al., 2017; Kinley, 2017) since we investigate the critical aspects of citizens’ support and willingness to pay for transforming countries to low- or even zero carbon societies. Issues of perceived fairness are at the heart of the problem of writing climate treaties. The earlier “Kyoto” style approach to deciding abatement commitments failed notably at the COP in Copenhagen and one of the main reasons was probably differences in opinion about how to allocate burdens fairly. While the Paris agreement is described as a historical event and a turning point in the United Nations' climate negotiations, its success hinges upon a much more bottom-up or voluntarist approach in which countries ambitions and efforts are outlined in the nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Public support for policies is one aspect of political systems that is argued to be of importance for successful implementation of climate policies, since competing over votes is assumed to create incentives among political leaders to deliver public goods that the citizens’ demand and are willing to pay for (Deacon, 2003;Smith et al, 2003). A lower support for climate policies would in this context translate to (democratic) governments being less
likely to implement such policies. However, also other factors can of course be of importance for successful implementation of climate policies such as government efficiency, impartiality and corruption (see e.g. Rothstein and Teorell, 2008 for a discussion of “good governance”).

This means that countries with lower levels of democracy could still implement effective policies. However, the basis for this project is that citizens’ preferences and perspectives are important for our understanding of the prospects for countries to implement climate policies
irrespective of level of democracy.

We will in particular focus on three aspects

  1. Determinants of support
  2. The value of being a frontrunner
  3. The role of information for shaping preferences for climate policy.

Determinants of support

There are plenty of studies investigating the support for climate policies, with both studies on the willingness to pay for policies (Johnson and Nemet 2010) and studies on the willingness to take individual action through for example reduced car use or increased use of renewable energy (Nomura and Akai 2004; Hansla et al. 2008; Akter and Bennet 2008). A smaller set of studies compare the support and determinants of the support among a set of countries. Brouwer et al. (2008) investigated whether air travel passengers support measures to compensate for the damage caused by their flights. They found that Europeans are the most aware and most willing to pay for carbon offsets whereas North Americans and Asians are less informed and less willing to pay. Carlsson et al. (2012) investigated preferences in three countries: China, Sweden and the U.S. They found that a large majority of the respondents in all three countries believe that the mean global temperature has increased over the last 100 years and that humans are responsible for the increase. Citizens in Sweden had the highest WTP for reductions of CO2, while China had the lowest. When WTP is measured as a share of household income, the willingness to pay is the same for Americans and Chinese, while again higher for the Swedes.

Understanding differences in preferences both within and between countries with both individual and country specific effects is crucial to understand why some individuals’ supports while others’ do not support climate policies. The knowledge is also crucial for governments to understand whether their climate politics correspond to a broad consensus among citizens.

Researchers

Åsa Löfgren (project leader), University of Gothenburg

Elina Lampi, University of Gothenburg

Thomas Sterner, University of Gothenburg

Fredrik Carlsson, University of Gothenburg

Mitesh Kataria, University of Gothenburg

The value of being a frontrunner

Sweden has as by January 2018 an ambitious climate change act with the goal of net zero carbon emission in 2045. There is a broad political consensus on the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions and while the political parties do not agree exactly how to reach the  target, there seem to be a vision that Sweden could inspire other countries by showing the possibility to combine drastic emission cuts with a strong welfare growth, hence there could be a value of being a front runner that is beyond the actual emissions reductions (see the Swedish “All-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives” in “A climate and air quality strategy for Sweden – Part I” (SOU, 2016).

We are interested in understanding how Swedish, and other citizens in European countries value “being a frontrunner”. To our knowledge this has not been done earlier. It could be that citizen’s strongly support their country to be a frontrunner despite the risk that it might only have marginal environmental impact. Understanding determinants that explains differences in preferences for being a frontrunner both within and between countries could be very important to understand why some countries take great responsibility for the global climate problem while others do not. For example, is the differences mainly driven by beliefs about a single country’s marginal impact on the global climate, or are other attitudes more important to explain such differences.

The role of information

One can hardly claim that it is the lack of available information that affects peoples support for different climate policies. On the contrary, there is plenty of information. However, what information people consider and how they interpret the information will critically depend on their initial attitudes. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, people wish to avoid holding contradictory beliefs, and suffer from being inconsistent (Festinger 1957).

This means that people will mainly accept information that are in line with their desired behavior to shape their beliefs, and reject information that is contrary to their behavior. This is relevant in light of the latest development of what is commonly referred to as “alternative facts”. Is the support and the lack of support for climate policy a result of who and how  knowledge about climate change is communicated to citizens? This is a very important area of research to gain understanding of how important knowledge like the climate change should be communicated to the citizens.