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The evolution of ideas in global climate policy


From carbon pricing to green industrial policy, economic ideas have shaped climate policy. Drawing on a new dataset of policy reports, we show how economic ideas influenced climate policy advice by major international organizations, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank, from 1990 to 2017. In the 1990s, the neoclassical notion of weak complementarity between environmental protection and growth dominated debates on sustainable development. In the mid-2000s, economic thought on the environment diversified, as the idea of strong complementarity between environmental protection and growth emerged in the green growth discourse. Adaptations of Schumpeterian and Keynesian economics identified investment in energy innovation and infrastructure as drivers of growth. We thus identify a major transformation from a neoclassical paradigm to a diversified policy discourse, suggesting that climate policy has entered a postparadigmatic period. The diversification of ideas broadened policy advice from market-based policy to green industrial policy, including deployment subsidies and regulation.

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Fig. 1: Economic schools of thought on the environment.
Fig. 2: The rise of green growth in global environmental discourse.
Fig. 3: The rise of clean energy subsidies and infrastructure investments.
Fig. 4: The shifting problem focus.

Data availability

The data are available in the Supplementary Data. The source data for Figs. 14 are also available as supplementary files.


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We thank A. Agopian, M. Conner, R. Jacobson and Z. Woogen for research assistance. We thank S. Bernstein, M. Kocher and M. Paterson for excellent comments.

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Both authors contributed equally to all steps of the analysis and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonas Meckling.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Miklos Antal, Angela Oels and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Notes 1 and 2 and references.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

Complete data as an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet includes 8 worksheets: 1 for each of the 6 IOs, 1 that aggregates the data and 1 that organizes the data into clusters for the figures (per Supplementary Table 2). The figures are also reproduced in the last worksheet.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Source data for Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Source data for Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Source data for Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Source data for Fig. 4.

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Meckling, J., Allan, B.B. The evolution of ideas in global climate policy. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 434–438 (2020).

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