Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Polluter Pays - but only if they can easily afford it.

I've posted a new article on Th!nk About It on the polluter pays principle, asking how far can - and should - it apply to countries, both between the developed and developing world(s), and between the western and eastern EU member states. I've cross-posted the article below, but if you've any comments, please post them on the Th!nk2 website.

At the European Council Summit at the end of October (a gathering of the heads of state and government of the EU), EU leaders failed to agree on firm figures for the financial side of a climate change agreement - the best they could produce was a series of vague estimates.

One of the most interesting aspects of the agreement (or lack of agreement), was the concession to the eastern states that payments into any EU wealth transfer fund to the developing countries would be take the ability to pay into account, rather than having payments heavily weighted according to the level of a member state's carbon emissions (a topic that we briefly considered at the end of the latest Chasing Brussels podcast*). While the principle of "the polluter pays" has been a key concept in Green politics - and the underlining rationale justifying Green taxes - the principle applies less to countries. There are good reasons for this: developing countries have a right to develop, preferably in as Green a way as possible, but development inevitably lends to an increase in greenhouse emissions. But how far can this principle of social justice be stretched? The eastern EU member states may be poorer compared to the western ones, but they still belong to one of the most developed regions in the world - how poor is "poor enough" to escape the demands of paying for pollution?

The western EU member states chief concern about the concession (apart from having to pay more themselves, of course), was that making the ability to pay count heavily in contributing to the global climate change fund on an EU-scale would weaken the developed world's argument that developing countries should contribute to such a fund as well. Poland's PM, Donald Tusk, responded with a surprisingly federalist-sounding counter-argument:


"We're not interested in how various Chinese provinces or US states are going to achieve their climate goals," he told reporters after the summit. "It's the EU as a whole that is important and what we are doing is at the forefront of that fight. I don't see any conflict between the two positions."


I doubt that developing countries will be content to leave it as a purely internal EU affair if they can extract a diplomatic advantage from it (though with the failure of a legally binding agreement widely expected by officials themselves, perhaps it won't emerge too strongly as an issue in December).

Still, how far can we excuse developing countries of the obligation to pay for pollution?** Without penalties and duties arising from pollution, how motivated will the governments of developing countries be to develop as greenly as possible? Would the temptation be just to invest in green technology and development only to the extent that the rich North is willing to pay for it?

It's obviously a sensitive political issue, given the recognised right of developing countries to be given the space to develop without the more onerous constraints that the developed world should bear. There's also a question of how far enforcing global payments would take away from investing in (green) development at home. Perhaps a graded approach would be the best one - one that properly took into account the level of emissions, which took into account the level of wealth in the contributions, yet maintaining "the polluter pays" principle at the forefront of the fund?

Is there a workable, practical solution that maintains this principle, or is it a mistake thinking that it should be applied to countries?



*For a specialised podcast on EU climate politics and policy, check out the Th!nkCast by Waldo, Joe & I.

**Assuming that we get the developed world to pay properly for its own pollution, of course.

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