Who should pay for climate change? The Beneficiary Pays Principle

In the last blog, we considered the question of who should pay for the cost of responding to climate change? We evaluated the polluter pays principle as a possible answer to this question. Despite the intuitive appeal of the polluter pays principles, it seemed concerning in two ways. Firstly many polluters are now dead. To capture the emission by dead people, we need to hold a different type of agent responsible for climate change harms, such as states. Secondly, it seemed willing to hold agents accountable for their emissions even when they were ignorant of the impact they have.


In this post, we shall consider a different answer to the question of who should pay for the cost of tackling climate change? Those who have benefitted from these emissions, known as the beneficiary pays principle. This means those who benefit from acts/policy, which requires the use of emissions should pay. Note the difference between this and the polluters pays principle. The beneficiary pays principle has no interest in whether you emit or how much you have emitted. It is merely interested in whether you have benefited from emissions, be they your emissions others.


This principle offers answers to some of the concerns with the polluter pays principle. If those of us alive today benefit from a sufficient quantity of emissions, then we have no need to concern ourselves with trying to get dead people to pay part of the bill. This is an appealing advantage over the polluters pay principle. While the polluter pays principle invites us to seek dead polluters, we may not need to seek deceased beneficiaries.


Does the beneficiary pays principle hold ignorant actors to account? Yes, if you have benefited from emissions, you have a share of the bill to pay. Your share of the bill is not contingent upon any knowledge. But if the beneficiary pays principle holds ignorant agents to account does that mean it is no better than the polluter pays principle? Not necessarily, whilst both of them are willing to hold ignorant actors responsible for the bill, they do diverge when we consider who these actors may be. The polluter pays principle will hold an actor responsible if they pollute, and the beneficiary pays principle holds an actor responsible if they benefit from emissions. The question becomes, are we more comfortable with giving the bill to a set of these actors even if there is some ignorance?


One may think that to enjoy benefits, one should be prepared to pay the costs associated with those benefits. One concern is that the beneficiary pays principle invites counter-intuitive answers to who should pay the bill. For example, it is possible that a state or individual has benefitted significantly from emission but lost the wealth they gained from this benefit. For example, a state may have carbon-intensive history fuelled by coal, yet be subject to poor economic management. The state in question has historically benefited from carbon emissions. Yet, the benefits from carbon have already been squandered. Should this state pay the bill for all the emissions they benefitted from? We may hold the view that it is odd to ask a state or individual to pay a bill if they lack the wealth to do so.


To summaries, the beneficiary pays principle proposes that those who benefit from emissions should bear the bill of climate action. This is based on a simple idea: if you are happy to receive the benefits from an action, you should be willing to bear the costs associated with it. As we have seen, this can invite some puzzling conclusions, such as asking those who have benefited but lack the wealth to pay part of the climate bill. Moreover, the principle is willing to hold ignorant actors responsible for the bill of climate action. While neither of these concerns is necessarily fatal to the principle, they invite us to pause before embracing it.

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