The polluter pays principle says that the more pollution you emit, and the more resources you use, the more you pay. This is fair in the sense that it charges most those who use most.
It is manifestly unfair that a pensioner living alone who uses water very sparingly subsidises the rich who use water prodigally. And the same applies to the use of energy, emissions of air pollutants, greenhouse gases etc. Without charging, the poor subsidise the rich. And in general, unless environment and resources are priced, the rich will always benefit as they use more ‘stuff’ and services of all sorts.
It is also the case that the poor have the least capacity to protect themselves from environmental damage. If the availability and quality of our water declines because we can’t afford the billion plus euros a year from general taxation that it now costs, the rich will protect themselves by moving to areas where there is still supply of high quality and where they can import water or install treatment systems. The same applies to dealing with the effects of climate change; the rich can afford to adapt, the poor can’t.
So the poor bear the consequences of environmental damage.
The same logic applies if air quality, waste systems etc deteriorate. Charging would encourage us to invest in conservation, to change our behaviour and create new enterprise. With ‘free’ water, a few of the most altruistic will make water saving investments, including tankless water heaters, low flow devices and rain cisterns. But most of us will not – we need the financial incentive.
As petrol and diesel costs rise, we tend to drive more slowly (reducing speed from 120 to 90 kilometres per hour reduces our fuel consumption per kilometre by about 10 per cent) and do a bit more walking. As Mencken puts it: “Conscience is that quiet voice that tells us someone may be looking.”
Also, charging for resources and pollution will support the emergence of a new generation of clean tech businesses. The emergence of such enterprises can provide new and interesting jobs that have export potential. But they can only generate a profit if, when they reduce emissions, money is saved, and this only happens where the polluter pays principle is applied.
But it is the case that even though poor people impose much less damage on the environment than the rich, the poorest will still be stressed financially to pay the charges. In such cases, the following must happen: they should be given the means to reduce their consumption – in the case of water there are very low cost investments (less than €100) that will have an immediate effect – and they should get a lump sum transfer (preferable) or a small free allocation. Some of the revenues can be used to reduce other taxes, such as PRSI, and this will stimulate employment, which will be especially helpful for the unemployed.
So when the application of the polluter pays principle is opposed on the social grounds, the response should be that the rich benefit most from free use of resources and environment, and the poor benefit most from its protection. We should apply the polluter pays principle, but as we do so, take measures that protect the most vulnerable.
Professor Convery is Chair of Comhar Sustainable Development Council and Director of the UCD Earth Sciences Institute.