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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

The Ethics of Carbon Pricing

Lukas Tank is a doctoral researcher at IRI THESys. His main research interests include climate ethics, environmental ethics, and normative ethics.

Carbon pricing is an umbrella term for a variety of policy instruments whose unifying feature is that they constitute a market-based approach to fighting climate change. Chief among them are emissions trading and the introduction of a carbon tax. Market-based approaches are often contrasted with so-called ‘direct regulations’. Prohibiting the use of coal is a prominent example for a non-market-based way to battle climate change. Emissions trading and carbon tax are both classified as carbon pricing because they involve putting a price on emitting carbon dioxide and possibly various other greenhouse gases. By doing so, they provide an incentive to emit less. If these emissions reductions are substantive enough, they can amount to a successful mitigation of climate change – or at least mitigation that is as successful as it is still possible. This alone provides us with ample reasons to think more and more carefully about carbon pricing. At least in theory, it seems like it could get the job done. Also, at the time of writing this (February 2018) some of the most important political actors appear to favor some form of carbon pricing as a reaction to climate change. Take the speeches of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at the COP 23 in Bonn in November 2017. They both mentioned only one policy instrument for mitigation and it was the same both times: carbon pricing (in the form of the already existing EU emissions trading scheme). Historically speaking, some form of carbon pricing has tended to be the kind of policy response favored by those US presidents who were not committed to denialism. China, too, seems to have chosen carbon pricing as its favored policy tool. If carbon pricing will be a major part of the global response to climate change anyway, we should better know what we are in for.

There already exists quite a substantive amount of scholarship on carbon pricing, focusing both on the idea in general and on already existing projects. However, very little has been written about the topic from a philosophical perspective. Does putting a price on carbon involve actions that are intrinsically morally problematic? Does it amount to a commodification of nature? Does it express a lack of solidarity on the side of those people who are able to continue their emission-intensive lifestyle? Does it harm the poor? Questions like these haven’t been addressed sufficiently. The aim of my project is to contribute to a better understanding of carbon pricing. In doing so I’m neither committed to advocating nor condemning it. This is not “The Case for Carbon Pricing” nor is it “The Case against Carbon Pricing”. Rather, it is a mixture of both. What I will do is to review a number of arguments for and against carbon pricing. These arguments will have carbon pricing in general or specific forms of carbon pricing as their topic. I clear them up and discuss their merits and flaws. In the end, we will gain a better understanding of the normative implications of what might well constitute a major part of humanity’s reaction to climate change.

Research Group: Global challenges in economic and environmental ethics

Gabriel Wollner
Photo: Lea Hanemann



Lukas Tank, Doctoral Researcher
Phone: +49 (030) 2093-66331
E-Mail: tanklukx@hu-berlin.de