Category Archives: Uncategorized

Summer School (Apply now)

Upcoming Summer School on “Ethics of the Green Future”. Please apply very soon!

Is a carbon-neutral life extremely cheap?

Recently my wife suggested that we offset all our emissions. Even though I found this a noble idea, I was worried that we might lose a fortune by doing so. This worry is unfounded (at least for a Swiss): Offsetting my yearly emissions costs around $300, possibly even less.

Here is an observation about this number: If everybody were to live a carbon-neutral life, then offsetting emissions would be much more expensive. In that case, it would cost me (to make an arbitrary guess) $10’000 rather than $300 to “compensate my life”. If everybody else were to offset their emissions, I couldn’t just pick the low-hanging fruit of cheap mitigation measures but would have to make use of very costly emission reduction measures. So, which number is the right one? Can I claim to actually have offset my emissions if I only pay $300? In some sense, the answer is “yes”. There is nothing incorrect about the following assertion: The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is the same if I emit and pay $300 to an offsetting company as it were if I weren’t around on this planet at all. Thus, my payment of $300 actually does offset my emissions. (Admittedly, many people don’t believe that offsetting works in practice; let’s set these worries and the uncertainties aside for the moment).

However, many are interested in compensating their emissions for a certain specific reason: they want to do their fair share in humanity’s common task of protecting the climate. If that is the reason for their interest in compensation, then things look different. If you are keen on doing your fair share and if you believe that the fair share consists in bearing your part of the overall costs that would arise if everybody were to do the right thing (and if you believe the right thing presently consists in living a carbon-neutral life), then your fair share would consist in paying $10’000 rather than $300. Another way to see this goes as follows: In order to do your fair share, you have to pay two bills. First, you pay $300 to actually offset your own current emissions. Second, you pay $9’700 on account of making mitigation measures more expensive for others in the future. Mitigation measures are more expensive for them because you have already exhausted the low-hanging fruit – your mitigation imposes an externality on them, so to speak.

An objection to this line of reasoning might arise: It is unrealistic that everybody else will offset their emissions. So, yes, if you want “to do your part” you have to pay the first bill of $300. But the second bill must be calculated differently: You have to estimate how much more expensive future mitigation will be on a realistic assumption about how much more future mitigation there will be (rather than on the assumption that everybody will fully do their fair share of mitigation in the future). In that case, the true price I would want to pay for compensating my yearly emissions would be something in between $300 and $10’000.

These thoughts are all rough. The basic message is this. Going carbon-neutral might seem extremely cheap. However, in order to know whether the moral goal you want to achieve by going carbon-neutral is really as cheap as it seems, you need to go into difficult philosophical territory. You cannot know how much it costs you without carefully examining the moral reason you have for going carbon-neutral in circumstances where others don’t go carbon-neutral. The literature on duties under partial compliance is the place to look for answers (and, when it comes to calculating actual numbers, the economic literature on the shape of Marginal Abatement Costs curves is relevant as well).

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.

Welcome to “Ethics for a Green Future”!

The goal of this blog is to create a forum for reflections on environmental ethics and future ethics. Apart from facilitating academic exchange, ‘Ethics for a Green Future’ aims at facilitating the interaction between academics and the public.

We look forward to interesting exchanges on relevant issues of environmental and intergenerational policy areas. Comments on blogposts are most welcome!

This Blog is part of the ‘Rights to a Green Future, Uncertainty, Intergenerational Human Rights and Pathways to Realization (ENRI-Future)’ project (2011 – 2015), financed by the European Science Foundation.

You can receive updates on new posts not only by mail (see sidebar) but also via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook.