Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Right to Emit GHG

There are a number of ethical questions surrounding climate change, not least those to do with the fact that many of the people expected to be most affected contribute little or nothing to greenhouse gas emissions because they live in poor countries or are not even born yet. But this post concerns a particular question posed by a comment to my February 6th post, namely: does wealth entitle one to create more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? (Actually the comment said CO2, but I am generalizing to GHG.) This got me thinking, which is always dangerous and in this case is probably going to be contentious.

I don’t like left/right political labels much, but on economic issues I think of myself as left-leaning. For example, I think the government has a role in redistributing wealth, as well as in regulating business, for example in preventing fraud, ensuring health safety, protecting the environment, and so on. On the other hand, I am certainly not in favor of a command economy. Marx’s maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” has not worked very well. I am therefore basing my analysis on the assumption that we are working within a properly regulated market economy, and I am a little surprised to come up with the answer “Yes, wealth does entitle one to create more GHG emissions.” But first, we need to examine that word “entitle.” My dictionary defines the verb “entitle” as “to give a right or claim to,” so someone who is entitled to something has (been given) a right to it.

There are various sorts of rights. Certain political rights for example are guaranteed by the US Constitution together with its amendments. These rights are not so much granted as proclaimed. One example is the right to free speech. The protection of these rights is in the form of a prohibition of any law which would infringe those rights. It does not guarantee that a particular individual can exercise the right, or regulate the extent to which he can exercise it. For example, someone in a coma has the right to free speech but cannot exercise it. I have the right to free speech but cannot exercise it as extensively as Mitt Romney. (This may well be unfair, and may well be a misinterpretation of the first amendment, but that is the current interpretation.)

The rights that are given, as implied by an entitlement, tend to be the rights to certain kinds of wellbeing, typically goods and services. One might think everyone is entitled to free health care or clean drinking water, for example. Attitudes vary around the world: most western countries regard free health care as a right. The US does not, but it does regard free education as a right. China is meant to be a communist country but provides neither health care nor education free. Which brings me to the contrast between these kinds of rights and the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

A more controversial example of the latter would be the second amendment right to bear arms. This has been interpreted as meaning that every citizen has the right to own a gun, but not even the NRA thinks it means the government should provide them free. Likewise, merely proclaiming the right to free health care would not in itself make it happen; it would just mean free health care could not be made illegal. The point is that the right to a particular good or service has to be granted by someone, and so implies an obligation or duty on that person to provide it. If the government thinks everyone should have clean drinking water, they have the duty to legislate so as to somehow provide it.

I contend that emitting GHG (other than by breathing!) is such a right. Indeed, the way we create these emissions is by consuming goods and services and hence energy. That being the case, the question really becomes “should wealth entitle one to create more GHG emissions” rather than does it. Some authority would need to grant rights to emit GHG, and the implication of the question is actually that this authority would have to restrict those rights. (So maybe this is a third kind of right; one which is taken away by some authority.) Possibly this authority is just ones conscience, but maybe it is an international institution like the UN.

Given a certain worldwide budget for GHG emissions, there are various ways in which we could allocate it between individuals. The free-market way is to price the emissions so that it is reflected in the price we pay for everything. This is efficient because it allows individuals to make choices which maximize their total utility, and also creates an incentive to provide new goods and services with fewer emissions. Another way would be some form of rationing. In addition to paying for a product or service, we would have to hand over a coupon representing the carbon footprint of that product. The coupons could be allocated equally to everyone, and would almost represent a parallel currency. The problem with this idea is that it would severely limit the ability of above-averagely well-off people to spend their money (while giving the poor rights they cannot afford to exercise) and the problem with that is that it removes the incentive that is the basis of the market economy I am assuming.

In other words, unless we are prepared to say that wealth does not entitle one to drink more wine, wear a better suit, or whatever – which is tantamount to making wealth meaningless -- it is hard to see how we could say it does not entitle one to emit more GHG. Having said that, the price mechanism I would advocate for GHG emissions would bear more heavily on the wealthy than the poor. The wealthy would bear the brunt of both the reduction in GHG (since the poor don’t have much to reduce) and the cost of mitigation. It goes some way towards equalizing the emissions of rich and poor, without going to the extent of requiring them to be equal.

If we still think this is unfair, because the poor cannot afford to consume more, we should separate the issue of this unfairness from that of GHG emissions. We should subsidize people rather than emissions. That is, we should enact policies which redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, who may well choose to spend it on something they want or need more than GHG-intense goods, which is preferable to encouraging them to emit more GGH.

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