This principle holds that if you pollute the environment, you should be held to account, i.e., you should be made to pay for the costs associated with that pollution. For instance, if you discharge pollutants into a stream you should pay for cleaning up that stream and any other damages. If you discharge greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere, you should be made to pay for that discharge, for example by paying a tax on the carbon you produce, which tax could be used to reduce GHG emissions.

The principle was embodied as Principle 16 in the 1992 Rio Declaration, “Internalization of Environmental Costs,” which held that “National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.”

While the principle is more established in the European regime of environmental protections than elsewhere, it is basically similar to the principles underlying the United States Superfund law that holds anyone and everyone who disposed of hazardous substances that pollute the environment to be liable for any costs of cleaning up that pollution.


Some further ideas to explore on Polluter Pays Principle:

 Identify a local instance of pollution – of water or air or land – and determine who caused the pollution. Then determine if under local or national law, that person or company can be held liable for the costs of cleaning up the pollution and the damages from the pollution.

What are the differences between the costs of cleaning up pollution and the damages from the pollution?

If the polluter does not pay for this pollution and the damages, who will pay?



“What is the ‘polluter pays’ principle?” Guardian, 02 July 2012

UNEP, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

US EPA, “What is Superfund?”

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