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.

Who should pay for the cost of responding to climate change? The Polluter Pays Principle

By Joshua Wells

Who should pay to mitigate climate change? This answer to this question may seem obvious. Surely it is the high emitting developed nations of the world. There are many reasons why the highest emitting developed countries should pay. We’re going to explore one prominent reason, the polluter pays principle.

The polluter pays principle is simply the idea that those agents who pollute should pay to address climate change. This idea appeals to common sense morality, the intuition we hold that if you break something, you have a responsibility to fix it. A set of agents are responsible for the problem of climate change. Therefore that set of agents has a duty to bear the burden of addressing climate change. This makes sense, right?

Yes, well at least it does at first glance, but if we look more closely at the above understanding of the polluter pays principle, we can see difficulties emerge. Greenhouse gas emissions rapidly grow when the industrial revolution starts. Suppose this is the appropriate point to say that humanity starts contributing to climate change. In that case, we face the problem that many of the polluters are now dead. We simply cannot capture all significant polluters because these polluting activities occurring decades and centuries ago.

Ah ok, but we can respond to this surely? The above objection considers individual agents to be the appropriate unit of concern. But we could adopt a different unit of agency, such as the state level of agency. If we think of the bill being paid by a state such as the UK, then it doesn’t matter that individual agents in the UK have emitted and died, because the UK itself exists in a recognisable form for centuries. Despite this not being true of all states, I am going to put further questions of state agency to one-side.

Does that mean we have we pinned the tail on the polluters? Not yet, states can observe that many of those emissions were innocent. Innocent in the sense that they had no idea of their harmful impact. Innocent in the sense that it would be unreasonable for most of this time to expect states to have knowledge of the effects of their emissions. And this innocence matters. When holding an agent responsible for an action, if they have no idea and cannot be reasonably expected to know the result of their action, we see this action differently.

Ok, but! States are not innocent anymore and haven’t been innocent for a long time. It is not plausible for states to claim to be unaware of the impacts form there emissions since 1990. If we consider post-1990 emissions, then the polluters pay principle has a much easier time of holding states responsible for the bill of addressing climate change. But this alone is unsatisfactory, for we do not have a clear understanding of why states are paying for the harm of their pre-1990 emissions. Remember the reasons why we are thinking about this principle is that we want to make sense of why certain states should pay to address climate change? It looks like the polluters pays principle won’t do this… unless we are happy to hold an agent responsible for innocent actions.

This is just a light sketch of the Polluter Pays principle and concerns with it. And there are further question to explore, perhaps it does make sense to hold agents responsible for innocent actions, as long as we do slip from responsibility to punishment. Henry Shue, in this context, argues that holding an innocent agent responsible is permissible, the mistake would be to think that their responsibility invites retribution.

In next week’s post, we will consider the beneficiary pays principle as an alternative account of who should pay for responses to climate change.

There is an extensive literature on the polluter pays principle, if you wish to know more about it I suggest Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue as a good starting point.

What’s the point of being ambitious? Isn’t it too late?

In light of the last blog on Biden and the Paris Agreement which highlighted the importance of how ambitious Biden is on climate change, a friend asked me, is it too late? Are we too late to tackle climate change? This is a really important and somewhat confusing question, a lot seems to hang on it. If we are really too late then why would we concern ourselves with climate change policy? In answering my friend’s question, my mind moved between yes, no, maybe, it depends at an unpleasant speed. I shall try to make sense of this question and say why we are late, but not too late.

The answer to this question seems to hinge on how too late is understood. We could understand too late to mean, are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes, we are already witnessing harms from climate change, such as increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, we cannot prevent these weather events.  

Well, what is the point of mitigation efforts if we are already experiencing harms from climate change? The severity of these harms are affected by our mitigation efforts. We do not mitigate to prevent all harms from climate change, we know we are too late for that, but we can still reduce the severity of and prevent some harms via mitigation and adaptation activities. This is why international agreements on climate change set targets of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees. This is to prevent the devastating impacts of a world in which there are more than 2 degrees of warming, such as sea level rising and removing countries from the map of the world.

 When trying to make sense of why we should be performing mitigation efforts despite the fact that harms from climate change will still occur, one is reminded of this Sirius Black quote, just substitute the threat of evil wizard (Voldemort) for climate change, “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard that ever existed [climate change]?” said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. “Only innocent lives, Peter!” Innocent lives, protecting them is exactly what we stand to gain from mitigation efforts.

It is an unfortunate fact that whilst we continue to emit carbon, we are committing the future to more significant harms. Whilst we are not too late to prevent some of these, each year we keep emitting we commit the future to greater harms. So whilst there is a set of harms which is not too late to prevent, this set of preventable harms gets smaller and smaller as time and emissions go on. Whilst we may not be too late to avoid these harms, action now is essential in order to do so. 

Are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes. Does this mean we should not do anything about climate change? No. Our actions now in regards to climate change will be informative of the severity and extent of these harms. Protecting innocent lives; we owe it to those who will be subject to these harms to do what we can to minimise the impact of climate change. This is why ambitious climate change policy matters.