Category Archives: Motivation, Values, Mentalities

An overlooked rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle

When I want to lose weight, I am often relieved to run out of chocolate in my apartment. Often the relief occurs because I know that I couldn’t resist the temptation. But, interestingly, I might be happy to run out of chocolate even if I were able to resist the temptation. Why is this so? Trivially, it’s much easier to refrain from eating chocolate when there is no chocolate around. If I simply don’t have the possibility of grabbing another bite then I am spared from constantly having to fight the urge to do so. If, in contrast, the chocolate were there right in front of me, I would use up lots of mental effort for refraining from it. I could save this mental energy by simply not having the opportunity of eating chocolate in the first place. (The internet even offers self-binding websites where people are actually willing to lose money in order to make it easier for them to reach their goals and overcome their temptations.)

Where is the link between the chocolate and the Polluter Pays Principle? Note first, that there are many different  rationales for the Polluter Pays Principle. There is…

  • …a consequentialist rationale: having to pay for pollution gives people an incentive to pollute less
  • …a corrective rationale: making polluters pay is fair because their payment can be seen as compensation for the harm they cause through their pollution
  • …a distributive rationale: the polluters typically benefit from polluting and making them hand over part of their benefits to those who are harmed by pollution yields a more equal distribution than if they could keep their gains.

I want to suggest that there is a further rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle, namely…

  • …a second consequentialist rationale: making people pay for pollution reduces the mental effort they need for refraining from pollution.

The idea is the same as with the chocolate. Assume that you are the type of person who voluntarily foregoes air travel. This sacrifice is based on your personal conviction that the heavy pollution involved in flying makes air travel immoral. You are the type of person who does not need to be incentivized by a Polluter Pays Principle in order to forego flying. Your intrinsic motivation is sufficient. The crucial point now is this: You might still be glad if your government were to tax air travel. This would make it easier for you to forego flying. Rather than having your conscience do heavy-duty work in suppressing daydreams about holidays on the Maldives, you can simply tell yourself that the taxation on the flight would make the flight too expensive for you anyway. Instead of having to rely on the burdening mental effort of intrinsically motivating yourself, the Polluter Pays Principle allows you to take the motivationally easier route of foregoing flights on the basis of your financial self-interest.

In other words: By setting up a Polluter Pays Principle, the government provides a service to environmentally conscious citizens. The government saves them the mental energy of having to exert willpower in order to perform voluntary green actions out of pure moral conviction. This rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle is genuinely different from the other rationales.

The Valuation of Ecosystem Services in an Intergenerational Perspective

Intergenerational ethicists dealing with environmental problems usually start by asking what moral obligations (for instance, in terms of biodiversity conservation) we have towards future generations. It is assumed that these obligations must have a moral foundation that is context-independent and that environment is one of the possible contexts of application. This approach is intuitively appealing, but it may lead to underestimating the role of contextual variables on individual motivation to act for the environment. Here I approach the problem from a different angle and ask what consequences for intergenerational ethics can be drawn from studying the current instruments used in valuing environmental services.

In the last three or four decades, the socio-economic, moral and policy issues connected with environmental problems have been increasingly visible in academic research, but also in public debates. Apart from the usual (largely neoclassical) treatment of environmental valuation through market prices or contingent methods (‘willingness to pay’ and ‘willingness to accept’), new approaches have been developed.

They focus on a more nuanced understanding of what valuation means, as well as a broader range of valuation methods that question the mainstream reliance on economic assessment as a reliable guide to policy-making. Insofar as they emphasize the strong coupling of ecological and socio-economic systems and the need to integrate ecologic sustainability concerns in sectorial policies, they usually go under the label of ecological economics.

In general, these valuations have referred not to nature or environment as such (whose total value is indefinitely high), but to specific services we derive from them. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) has grouped these services under four categories: provisioning (food, timber etc.), regulating (e.g. pollination, flood control), ‘cultural’ (recreation, cultural identity) and supporting (necessary for the functioning of all other services, e.g. soil formation, carbon fixation). The problem is then how to convert the perceived benefits that we get from these services into quantifiable expressions of value. The concept of Total Economic Value (TEV) captures the attractive idea that marginal changes in ecosystem conditions can be translated into a gain or loss of benefits, which are converted into expressions of value using a common metric, usually monetary. We could then compute the total net value (benefits minus costs) and therefore build a consistent utility function which optimizes the allocation of goods by equating the marginal rate of substitution between pairs of goods to the price ratio.

However, all this implies several (problematic) assumptions – for instance, that market prices take into account all relevant information to be included in the environmental valuation. (In particular, the so-called ‘non-use values’ – e.g. the intrinsic value one places on the very existence of some environmental resource, beyond any possible use – are difficult to integrate in TEV-based calculations.) It also ignores post-Keynesian criticisms of neoclassical reliance on equilibrium markets. Current valuation methods are fraught with other problems too: (1) they tend to reflect current preferences and state of knowledge, (2) they are context-dependent and therefore vary spatially and temporally and (3) they are unable to accommodate multi-criteria assessment methods. Nevertheless, although they may disagree on the appropriate methods to be applied, many authors consider environmental valuation a practical necessity: “although ecosystem valuation is certainly difficult and fraught with uncertainties, one choice we do not have is whether or not to do it. The decisions we make as a society about ecosystems imply valuations (although not necessarily expressed in monetary terms)”. (Robert Costanza et al., Nature, 1997, p. 255).

What does this all mean in an intergenerational perspective? First of all, it shows that intergenerational issues are part of a larger methodological debate that touches the core assumptions of mainstream economics. Behavioral research is challenging the traditional model of the ‘rational’ utility-optimizing actor, by pointing out to cognitive limits in acquiring and processing information, cognitive biases (loss aversion, endowment effect, confirmation bias etc.), stereotyping and intertemporal discounting. In particular, data shows that intertemporal choice manifests hyperbolic discounting (i.e. the discount rate for the near future is higher than the one for long term prospects, which can lead to time-inconsistency of choices). The aggregate effects or imperfectly rational agents, which can often lead to dysfunctional market behavior and suboptimal outcomes, have also been studied (for instance, in the context of groupthink or instances of collective euphoria or phobia).

Secondly, by analyzing the specific contribution of different ecosystem services to human welfare and the way this welfare can be sustained over time, it is sometimes possible to derive intergenerational rights and obligations from a broadly-construed ‘environmental duty’, rather than deriving environmental obligations from an intergenerational ethics. Combining the two approaches is practically useful: while some people are motivated mainly by an anthropocentric ethics focused on duties of people, groups and generations towards one another, others will react more vividly to issues such as connectedness to nature and biodiversity protection. (After all, bioethics is one of the fastest developing fields in ethical theory.)

Thirdly, TEV-based methods are obviously not well fitted to address intergenerational concerns, since they generally take the preferences of current generations (as expressed through different valuation methods) as the only possible justification for any obligations towards future generations. As already mentioned, intertemporal discounting and context-dependency can render aggregate preferences inconsistent and thus undermine collective action and policy-making. While monetary valuation is clearly useful in enabling trade-offs between services (including ecosystem services), we should not expect all and everything from it. Multi-criteria assessment and other deliberative methods allow the integration of multiple non-convergent values and preferences. They may provide an essential ingredient for facilitating public participation, in order to protect essential non-market ecosystem services.

Rawls and Popper at Climate Negotiations

At the Bonn Climate Conference that took place last month, philosophical theorising entered the political negotiations. UN climate chief Cristiana Figueres noted that “equity is difficult to define” and everyone agrees: There is a bewildering disagreement on equity principles. Dr. Prodipto Ghosh therefore stressed that equity norms must not simply be asserted but must also be justified. You can see him talk here (minute 29), invoking Popper and Rawlsian ideas along the way.

In his view, we must systematically compare different equity proposals by following a six step validation procedure (see p. 8 and 9 here). A crucial step includes testing whether the different equity proposals are consistent with basic ethical criteria (universalizability, avoiding harm, etc., see p. 10 and 11 here). While his specific suggestions are based on some – in my view – adventurous philosophical premises, the basic thrust seems right: We better find some way to resolve that disagreement.

Dr. Ghosh and myself might be wrong in thinking that the best means to resolve the disagreement over equity norms consists in finding agreement on a method to resolve the disagreement. That might be too academic and too artificial to be of any help in practice. I am not sure what other means would be more effective in achieving the goal of agreement. But what I am sure about is the importance of agreement (or at least convergence). Why? The bewildering variety of equity proposals makes room to choose one’s favorite principle based on self-interest (cf. Lange et al.).

A good example is the US negotiator who made self-interested use of the disagreement on equity in subtle but powerful ways. You can see him talk here (at minute 11:40). He stressed how there were multiple interpretations of equity, how each interpretation is valid, how equity is a qualitative concept that doesn’t fit into a formula and how we should respect diversity of opinion. He displayed other ingenious ways of dodging the equity issue (such as ruling out equity proposals on account of their lack of realism, meaning nothing else than that rich countries are not willing to bear the costs). But the above mentioned insinuations were particularly salient in instrumentalizing disagreement for the purpose of avoiding being nailed down. This proves Dr. Ghosh right: We should not rest content with the current state of massive confusion & disagreement over equity principles.