What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way: Sequencing in Climate Policy to Ratchet Up Stringency Over Time

Jun 14, 2017 | Michael Pahle, Dallas Burtraw, Christian Flachsland, Nina Kelsey, Eric Biber, Jonas Meckling, Ottmar Edenhofer, John Zysman


This report develops a conceptual model of policy sequencing rooted in climate economics and political science as a pathway to achieving the aspirations of the Paris climate agreement. The ideas are illustrated with examples from Germany and California.

Key Findings

  • The Paris climate accord embraced an iterative process of nationally determined commitments (pledge and review) as the global framework for reducing emissions over time.
  • Frameworks to think about the evolution of policies are scarce, and none explicitly considers increasing stringency as a guiding principle.
  • We postulate the existence of barriers to greater stringency in climate policy and argue that policy sequencing can be a way to overcoming these barriers over time.
  • To make the model analytically useful, barriers are characterized along with related sequencing options, drawing on illustrative examples from Germany and California.


A major outcome of the Paris climate agreement is the aspirational goal of greenhouse gas (GHG) neutrality. How and through which policy pathways can this be realized? Economists stipulate dynamically cost-effective pathways with rising carbon prices over time. Yet pricing expands slowly in the face of various barriers, while some success is found in different policy trends. We outline a theory of change to overcome barriers to carbon pricing with path dependency and sequencing at its core. The mechanism involves second-best policies that compromise on cost-effectiveness at earlier stages to pave the way for more stringent and cost-effective policies later. We observe California and Germany to identify how policy barriers have been addressed in a sequential manner. We hypothesize that long-term success hinges on building coalitions, reducing costs, avoiding bad policy lock-ins, and other dynamic factors. We hope this framework stimulates a new research agenda of practical value.