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Should companies pay to pollute?

2007 photo of coal power plant in Gelsenkirchen

Should companies pay to pollute? Great thinkers like Aristotle have mulled such questions for centuries, says philosopher Mark Vernon in the Magazine's series on modern ethical dilemmas.

Carbon credits allow organisations to pay to pollute. If you have a carbon credit, you can emit one tonne of carbon.

The aim is to reduce carbon emissions by putting a price on climate change pollution. But there's a tension here. A market in carbon also creates the right to emit pollutants. So is the system just?

You can seek an answer in different ways, according to the three traditions of moral philosophy that dominate in our times.

A utilitarian approach, which seeks people's greatest happiness and is associated with British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is only interested in whether it works.

Reducing levels of carbon in the atmosphere will, presumably, reduce the risk of adverse climate change, and that, in turn, will mean future generations are a lot happier than they would be if carbon levels continued to rise. In short, says the utilitarian, if you have to create a market for carbon in order to keep people happy, so be it.

But it will take time to see whether carbon credits work, time the climate science suggests is in short supply.

A Kantian approach, that considers fairness and rights, might examine questions such as this: does the market for carbon favour richer nations, those with the wealth to pay for credits?

Yes, reply countries like India and China, pointing out that the system is unjust because it means the very nations that caused the problem can carry on polluting.

Image caption A country could pay to pollute...

Further, carbon credits arguably distribute responsibility in an unjust way. For example, if a poorer country reduces its carbon emissions, it will have surplus carbon credits. These can be bought by a wealthier nation that can then carry on emitting.

The net result could be to increase the pollution gap between rich and poor countries. This would not just introduce a new inequality into the world, but might turn carbon emission into a luxury, as desirable as a mink coat.

This possibility raises the third way of looking at the problem, based on virtue.

Virtue ethics - associated with Aristotle - would want to ask about the moral standing of those engaged in this activity. What happens to the moral stigma attached to pollution?

It seems that carbon credits reduce the stigma by giving countries and companies the right to pollute, so long as they pay for it. Richer entities are doing something that might be thought wrong, but they can pay the price, thereby implying they have been forgiven.

Image caption ...or build cleaner facilities - also expensive

A final question that the virtue ethics approach would have concerns whether carbon credits undermine the shared responsibility that, ideally, all nations should have for the planet and its resources.

A marketplace for carbon might load responsibility for reducing emissions onto poorer countries. Shared responsibility is, therefore, undermined by it.

But then again, a utilitarian might retort: who cares about such moral niceties when cutting pollution is at stake. So long as the market works…

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