Polluter pays

To sort out what to do after 2012 we need to go back to basics and adopt a simple, axiomatic, and indisputable principle: the polluter pays.

Under the polluter pays principle a polluter is responsible for the outcome of his or her pollution. It is a principle of such great guiding power, that it is even enshrined in an EU Directive, the Environmental Liability Directive of 2004. It is consistent with a philosophy of individuals in society being responsible for their actions. Pulling the chain after going to the toilet is a mild example of the polluter pays principle.

In a society where we believe in human rights, responsibilities, freedom of expression, free markets, and so forth, the polluter pays principle is axiomatic. Unless you are a rabid communist who denies individual property rights and obligations, the principle is fundamental and undisputable. Like the idea that we send a murderer to jail for murder and not his nextdoor neighbour.

How would application of the polluter pays principle help in figuring out Kyoto’s successor? It helps us by allocating responsibility for the problem to specific emitters. Further it allows us to split the problem into two underlying problems which are being confused today: reparation of past pollution and avoidance of future pollution.

Imagine you are a teacher, and a little girl comes to you crying because a fat, greedy, boy has stolen some sweets from her. To rectify the situation you actually have to do two things. First you restore the balance of wealth to its previous status by getting the boy to replace the stolen sweets. But you don’t stop there, because if that is all you do, then he will just go off and steal someone else’s sweets again.

Second, you do something to prevent the boy from stealing again. This could include giving him a wallop on the bottom, gently educating him to be a good boy, or extracting a promise that he will not do it again. If you only took measures to prevent future stealing, but did nothing to correct the original theft, then the little girl would still be unhappy and you would have let an injustice happen without remedy. Extracting a promise about future behaviour, or walloping the fat boy, may give a sense of satisfaction but does not correct the injustice.

The fat greedy boy of our example is the “developed world”, led by the USA. The emission of greenhouse gasses, an act of pollution, is the stealing of the biscuit. And the little girl is the rest of the world which will suffer most from the results of climate change.

In this model the successor to the Kyoto Protocol needs to do two things. It needs to effect reparation for past pollution, and it needs to take measures to avoid recurrence of the harm in the future.

Under reparation, we need to agree each country’s approximate “carbon debt”, meaning the amount of excess CO2 they have polluted the atmosphere with since industrialisation began. This needs to be held in account, and countries should retire this by putting it back where it came from – through capturing and sequestering absolute quantities of CO2 through forestation and carbon capture and storage.

So far, the debate is about commitments to reduce annual emissions in the future. This subsumes the two questions of reparation of past emissions and avoidance of future ones into one – in effect we seem to be horse-trading from day one, rather than establishing important principles to guide the agreement. By breaking down the problem into these two different constituents, and applying the polluter pays principle, it might be easier make political progress in the negotiations.

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1 Response to Polluter pays

  1. Flóra says:

    I am not sure if stealing someone’s property (the biscuits) and producing emissions were the same in this case. Also not in a metaphorical way. In my oppinion pollution is even “worse” and I think it should be stopped or at least drawn in a different way.
    Than I think one of modern societies biggest problems is based on private property and if we were still a hunting-collecting society we may have been having a higher level of well-being. We may not have todays biggest problems as overpopulation, ending ressources or climate change. There are some scientists saying (like John Gowdy) that those societies have had a better human life, fulfilled with some work (3-4 hours a day) but mostly with spending time with the family, resting and cultural activities like singing, dancing ect. Women were more accepted as their collected food (vegetables, fruits) brought the biggest part of that what the community were eating. There was no greed, no egocentrism.
    At the end that’s how we want to live today (having more resting-time, family-time, culture-time) but by following the „human-made” economical rules and by believing in the „economical human being” it became pretty difficult.
    I dont say, that stealing from an other hume being is not bad, but I do say that taking ressources that not even belong to us (like the ending ressources of the Earth); use them for our never ending desire of consuming, comfort, controll-need; and also making harm to others by doing so – may be even worse..
    I may be wrong, in the matter of fact I have no idea what to think..Those were just some toughts that were crossing my mind by reading the article.
    The only thing that I am sure of, is, that the economical system is something artificial, based also on some not-working rules (like never ending ressources, or the more is better). The Earth, the Biosphere is on the other hand a system, wich has proved itself and is functioning by some very “natural” maybe even mystical rules.
    The question is, if such an artificial, disfunctional system as the Economy was able to “save”/ to “protect” Earth – this very functional, wonderfull, natural living system…..?
    Thank you for sharing your toughts and sorr for my English:-)

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