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November 3, 1997

What Ever Happened to the 'Polluter Pays' Principle?

By E. Melanie DuPuis

President Clinton's new proposal to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions "will anger industry," according to recent news reports. True. And Clinton recently told the world that raising energy prices "won't pass muster with the American people." He's right about that, too.

The American public insists on its "right to pollute" on a global scale. Even as we've promised to start cleaning up our act, our pollution levels are increasing instead of decreasing. This leads me to wonder: Whatever happened to the principle, upheld in our courts and most of our environmental regulations, that the polluter pays?

Clinton's comments came at a time when an international commission is trying to put together an agreement in which all countries would share financial responsibility for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions are widely considered the single biggest contributor to current global warming problems. These emissions come largely from the burning of fossil fuels, mostly in coal or oil-burning power plants or gasoline-powered cars. Approximately 20 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions now come from the United States.

Every time a U.S. citizen turns on a light or turns the key in the ignition, that person is exercising the "right to pollute." Citizens don't like the fact that factories and power plants attain this right by acquiring environmental permits, but we're basically exercising the same right when we use our internal combustion engines to get to our jobs or across town.

Economists argue that if polluters have to pay for this right they will tend to exercise it less (think about how much less water you use when you pay for it by the gallon). That is why the federal Clean Air Act authorized states to charge per ton for pollution permits, and it's the same reasoning behind the requirement that power plants and factories that are expanding their production--and therefore their pollution--buy this right from other plants and factories that have reduced emissions. Following the precedent established in toxic waste cleanup, industrial polluters are responsible for paying the environmental costs associated with using natural resources.

The public is happy to see these costs imposed on "big business," particularly those smokestack companies that people no longer welcome into their communities, but what about those mobile smokestacks we drive around in every day?

Even though companies inevitably pass along to consumers the costs of new environmental protections, implementation of the Clean Air Act so far has shown a remarkable pattern: Pollution controls that impose costs not visible to the consumer's pocketbook have worked their way into law, while pollution controls that visibly raise consumers' costs have faced a much harder fight.

The problem is that the same consumer who fights against the siting of a new factory in town denies responsibility for the pollution he or she causes every day. As factory pollution controls get tighter, pollution caused by personal energy use is becoming a larger proportion of the problem.

The cheapest way to reduce emissions is to use energy more efficiently, and the cheapest way to encourage efficient energy use is to make it more expensive. Economists would call this "internalizing" the cost--in other words, make the price real, not just for the environment but for the polluter.

Environmental groups tend to play down consumer pollution in favor of targeting factories. They know their political support lies in the fight against "those others" that pollute and not the "us" responsible for our own personal pollution. Consumers don't want to hear about their own pollution except in voluntary "things you can do to save the earth" style messages.

Industrial polluters for decades have asked that their pollution control programs be voluntary. Yet because we know that this request is just a way to put off their responsibilities, the public has insisted that these industrial polluters pay through involuntary regulations.

Why should we be any different? Do we voluntarily use less energy because it's bad for the environment? Do we use as much less as we would if we had to pay more for it? Could we at least admit to ourselves, and the developed and undeveloped world out there asking us to control ourselves, that we are simply doing what we accuse factories of doing every day: Pushing our political weight around so that we can get as much as we can of that common resource--the air--while paying as little as we can for it? Can we admit to these other countries that we are polluters refusing to pay, as we sanctimoniously ask them to stifle the development of their economies?

Melanie DuPuis is an assistant professor of sociology.

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