Utilitarian Approach to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to a new study involving Rutgers researchers, an approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions informed by the ethical theory of utilitarianism would result in better outcomes for human development, equity, and the climate.

According to Mark Budolfson, a philosopher and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice at the Rutgers School of Public Health, the study, published in Nature Climate Change, proposes a practical way of measuring how different nations should reduce carbon emissions in order to maximize global wellbeing.

“Utilitarianism tells us to care about everyone’s well-being, and to care equally about each of us,” says Dean Spears, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin who co-wrote the paper with Budolfson and an international team of researchers. “By doing so, we learn that combating climate change necessitates different ambitions from different countries because countries around the world begin in different places and with different resources.”

While nations pledged to reduce carbon emissions in the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments have since failed to agree on their individual responsibility, in part due to the lack of an agreed method for measuring what emissions reductions should be expected from different nations with very different resources.

Utilitarianism tells us to care about everyone’s well-being and to care equally about each of us. By doing so, we learn that combating climate change necessitates different ambitions from different countries because countries around the world begin in different places and with different resources.

Dean Spears

The study identifies a method of measuring equity that is simple, appealing, and transparent, and this method of assessing equity can be implemented in a wide range of climate policy assessment models and discussions.

“Simplicity can be advantageous in discussions and negotiations. And, given that more robust and complex conceptions of equity have resulted in deep disagreements, a minimal conception of equity that is as uncontroversial as possible may also be an advantage “Budolfson is also a member of the Center for Population-Level Bioethics and the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research.

The researchers propose assigning different carbon emission reduction goals to different countries based on their wealth and ability to grow and maintain their citizens’ health and well-being.

“The key insight is that when emissions are allocated to where they do the greatest good, in poorer nations, global welfare increases and we do a better job of limiting emissions,” says Navroz K. Dubash, professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Utilitarian approach to global climate policy improves equity, environment, and wellbeing

The researchers use a computer model to solve for the distribution of emissions reductions across the world that would maximize wellbeing while taking into account the interests of all world citizens equally. In this sense, their method has a straightforward utilitarian goal at its core, as well as a straightforward utilitarian concept of equity that drives its calculations, as well as estimates of impacts that focus on wellbeing rather than dollars of GDP. The authors consider not only the wellbeing impacts of direct climate change harms but also the wellbeing impacts of the costs of reducing emissions.

According to the authors, this straightforward utilitarian approach captures much of what is important in terms of equity, and it also allows for simple and transparent calculations of what should be done when equity is considered. According to the researchers, the utilitarian approach corrects a significant structural bias in policy analysis by focusing on wellbeing impacts rather than just economic outcomes.

“Previous analyses of climate policy sometimes get off on the wrong foot by relying on simple dollar-based goals like maximizing global GDP and thus ignoring the importance of vast income disparities around the world,” Budolfson adds.

“Measurements based solely on dollars fail to take into account the fact that a dollar sacrificed by a poor country subtracts more happiness than a dollar sacrificed by a wealthier country. Our method calculates the wellbeing impacts of a dollar of emissions reduction for a poor country versus a dollar of emissions reduction cost for a rich country. It is critical to set up the analysis correctly in this manner so that we can measure wellbeing impacts rather than just monetary impacts. We also set up the analysis so that the goal is to find the policy that best promotes happiness rather than the policy that maximizes the total dollar value of global wealth or GDP. We believe this is an improvement in policy analysis, and one that removes what is otherwise an all-too-common structural bias against the poor.”

According to the authors, utilitarianism is ethically minimal because it only requires that each person’s interests be treated equally and that policy promotes wellbeing. “Many of the ongoing climate change debates can benefit from a utilitarian approach. It is simple to use in a wide range of situations where transparency is essential. Furthermore, it has the advantage of prioritizing human well-being in the future, complementing analyses that call on historical responsibility for past emissions “Kevin Kuruc, an economist at the University of Oklahoma, agrees.

The utilitarian benchmark generates an equitable model that reallocates emissions constraints while allowing poorer regions to continue economic development. “This leads to increased human development and living standards for the world’s poor,” says Budolfson.