Global Emissions – The Prisoner’s Dilemma

My last article ended on a gloomy note, warning that we may already be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change. It is difficult to find a space in which we can see our situation clearly. While we might not respond if we think that we are doomed, we might not respond adequately if we underestimate the severity of what is happening. There are many unknowns about timing, but we know that the risks we expose ourselves too if we underestimate the severity of our situation make decisive and lucid action prudent; there are not only lags within the climate system, but there are lags between when we respond and when our responses become effective.

In the three preceding articles, I chose to talk about global emissions as opposed to either Canada’s or Ontario’s emissions. This was for a couple of reasons (and was in keeping with the principle that we need to think broadly): because the consequences of climate breakdown do not respect borders; because we find ourselves in a situation where even if we were to reduce our emissions swiftly within Canada, that would not be sufficient to avoid worst-case scenarios; and because we are part of a global economy, and are under constant pressure to compete within that economy.

That said, in order to understand our situation, we should spend some time considering emissions at the national and provincial levels. Before we do that though, it is important to note that emissions reporting is far from perfect as two recent studies make evident. One study, released in April (discussed here: found that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from Canada’s tar sands are, on average, 64% higher than reported. This is not the fault of companies, as they have been following the reporting standards set by the government.

South of the border, a study released at the beginning of this month found that methane (CH4) emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants were 100 times higher than reported by the industry, and also “substantially higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for all [CH4 emissions from all] industrial processes in the United States.” (source:

Given that emissions of these two greenhouse gasses have been significantly underreported in the U.S. and Canada, it is safe to assume that they are also being underreported elsewhere, adding another factor to the uncertainty —and severity —of our situation. But even if the numbers are not representative of actual emissions, we can learn something from comparing relative emissions across time.

Looking at the data, Canada’s CO2 emissions peaked in 2007 at 744 megatons and were 716 megatons in 2017, the last year for which we have published data. Nationally emissions have been nearly flat since 2000. While flat is better than increasing, it is no where near what is required to avoid worst case scenarios. And while Canada’s emissions only comprise about 2% of global emissions, in 2014 Canada ranked 16th on the list of emissions per capita. As of 2016 Ontario had the second highest emissions behind Alberta, where emissions continue to increase. In contrast, emissions have fallen in Ontario, in large part from the closing of our coal-fired plants.

In Ontario, the largest share of our emissions (35%) are from transportation, which includes rail, civil aviation, on-road and off-road travel, transport etc., with industrial emissions comprising 28%. This is out of step with global emissions, where power generation (25%), and food and land use (24%) comprise the largest shares, with transportation only accounting for 14%.

Part of the reason for this difference is that Ontario has a lot of hydro as well as nuclear, and so only 7% of our emissions come from generating electricity. Another factor is our large geography; we have more kilometres to travel to get from place to place, whether we’re shipping food, materials, or traveling for work or pleasure.

We will return to these details again and again throughout the coming articles. For now I want to return to the general problem of a) taking out relatively small emissions seriously, and b) acting accordingly.


The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Prisoner’s dilemma is a well known “game” within a game theory, that elucidates why rational actors might not cooperate, even if it is in their interests to do so (

It has been presented as follows: “Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison

If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)

If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).”

Within this game, the main problem is that the prisoners cannot communicate (there is an additional problem of trust), and are therefore unable to collaborate in a way that benefits them both. Climate change has provided the world with a complex version of this game, in which the stakes are much higher. While it is in the interest of every jurisdiction to avoid climate breakdown, each jurisdiction is also forced to compete with each other jurisdiction in the game of growing the economy, and the politicians in each jurisdiction are under constant pressure to do so. The result is that so far we are all failing to solve the dilemma.

Not only are we struggling to collaborate internationally, as the international agreements on climate change have shown (of the top 10 global CO2 emitters, not one is hitting its goals as outlined in the Paris agreement), we are now struggling to collaborate intranationally. Our country —as well as others —is increasingly divided, between jurisdictions, and between neighbours. While it is rarely mentioned, this division is itself a symptom (as well as a cause) of climate change. If tensions that exist within the nation are already often causing us to fail to engage in reasonable, honest and open dialogue, what chance do we have of meeting the challenges that we will face as the number of disasters from extreme weather increase, and institutions are strained by both international and intranational migration? Climate models do not consider geopolitical stability in their pathways.

As I said in a previous article, if anyone of us decide to cut our own emissions (say from transportation, since in Ontario that is the main source of emissions), through personal sacrifice, that will never be sufficient on its own to solve the prisoners dilemma; there are simply too many actors involved in the game, who, for whatever reasons, cannot currently afford (or are unwilling) to reduce their emissions. The only way out of this deadlock is through collaborative action. Collaborative action requires trust, and trust in our public institutions is not particularly high right now. Isn’t the continued denial of climate change in part a symptom of that?

There is also another dimension to the problem, which the prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t capture, which is a lack of common decency: an inability to respect other humans, as well as other living beings. Climate change challenges us to consider whether we are being decent. It challenges us to lay bare our values: are we content to get ours now, to enjoy a feeding frenzy while we can, no matter the consequences for those who come after or who live elsewhere? If we are all the coyotes, do we live for the boom, ignoring the spectre of the bust, or do we attempt to open up another scenario? If we truly believe another outcome is possible, and we truly desire it, then it is also a question of love. Not an abstract, new age love for people we don’t know who live in a place we have never visited, but the love that is manifested when we work in the world towards something beyond ourselves.

The next articles will explore in more detail what collaborative action looks like, how it can be done, and consider questions of value and ethics.

Leo Lepiano

One comment

  1. We are very fortunate to have Leo sharing his research and intelligence on a subject that is essential to our daily lives and our future. Thank you.