What Is the Polluter Pays Principle?

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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 31 May 2020
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Pollution is a global concern that has become an issue in almost all governments throughout the world. While everyone living on the planet, and those yet to be born, pays the price for pollution in a metaphorical sense, governments have had to develop laws that address who will pay for pollution in real-world dollars. Many governments have adopted the "polluter pays principle" when addressing the cost of pollution. The basic concept behind the polluter pays principle is that the person, or entity, responsible for an act of pollution or the consequences thereof should be responsible for the costs associated with the pollution.

The issue of pollution is a relatively new one in terms of politics and government legislation. Well into the 20th century, industries were polluting the atmosphere, oceans, and ground water on a regular basis with very little government intervention or legal repercussions. With the social awareness of the 1960s and 1970s in America came an awareness of the fragility of the planet on which we live as well — something that many scientists and environmentalists had been trying to point out for some time. As a result of the growing awareness regarding the negative effects of human interaction with the environment, governments around the world began to enact legislation aimed at preventing pollution, much of which was guided by the polluter pays principle.

At its most basic, the polluter pays principle makes polluters, generally a company or organization, legally responsible for any and all costs associated with the clean up of pollution that they have caused. In addition, they are also responsible for any consequential expenses resulting from the pollution. For example, in the United States, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly referred to as the Superfund, is a federal law requiring the responsible party to clean up hazardous waste sites.

On an international level, the polluter pays principle was a guiding principle mentioned in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, commonly shortened to the Rio Declaration. The Rio Declaration was introduced at the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992. Among the 27 principles espoused in the Rio Declaration, the polluter pays principle can be found in Principle 16.

On a more individual level, many governments have instituted practices that reward consumers who are environmentally conscious while taxing those who are not. This practice has earned the name "feebates." California, for example, introduced a bill in 2008 known as the "Clean Car Discount Program," which imposes a fee on the purchase of vehicles with a high carbon emission. It then uses those funds to provide a rebate for consumers who purchase environmentally-friendly vehicles.

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