Paying the Price for the Future We Want

By Min Zhu

Putting an accurate price on pollution is something the world has been struggling with now for decades. Getting prices to reflect environmental damage will help slow pollution by encouraging people and firms to change their behavior and shift away from activities and products that pollute the planet. Paying true prices is something we need to do if we want to keep economic development on an environmentally sustainable track.

Behind the concept of sustainable development lies a bold vision of the future, or “The Future We Want,” as Ban Ki-Moon puts it. It is about the vitality of our global economy, the harmony of our global society, the nurturing of our global inheritance.

It is about laying the foundation so that every single person can flourish and reach their true potential.

Eyes on Rio

This week the world is looking to Rio de Janeiro as those of us gathered there for the Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development affirm our commitment to sustainable development—the idea that we should strive for economic growth, environmental protection, and social progress at the same time.

Because, standing in the way of the future we want are the environmental problems we continue to face. Climate change could lead to potentially devastating consequences down the line, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. Look at Africa. This is the continent that contributes least to climate change, and yet suffers most from it. It is among the regions most at risk from natural disasters. It is the region with the highest rainfall volatility—and the region that desperately needs the rain for agriculture, growth, and employment.

But environmental problems are broader than climate change. In India, for example, pollution from coal generation plants has been estimated to cause 70,000 premature deaths a year. Across the world, many of our fisheries are still being overharvested. And the delicate ecosystems in many of our forests and wetlands remain under threat.

Not everyone agrees on the appropriate policy responses to deal with environmental challenges. And that is one of the reasons why so many of us have gathered in Rio—to keep the dialogue going, and to continue to make incremental progress toward the future we want.

While the International Monetary Fund is not an environmental organization, we cannot ignore the extensive human suffering and the misallocation of resources that leads us down the wrong path.

And where we can, we will offer help in finding solutions—something Christine Lagarde spoke about in more detail last week at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.

What’s in a price?

One area where the IMF can help to promote sustainable development is by “getting the prices right.”

Getting appropriate pricing means, for example, making sure that companies and individuals pay the true cost of polluting our planet. The best way to come up with the true costs is through fiscal instruments, such as environmental taxes or emissions trading systems where governments sell pollution rights, to reflect environmental damages in the prices we pay for energy, food, driving our cars, and so on.

Getting the prices right should form the centerpiece of policies to promote green, or environmentally sustainable, development.

Because, as discussed in a new IMF guide for policymakers, fiscal instruments can help to solve two of today’s most urgent challenges:

First, they can play a key role in raising badly needed revenues. In the United States, for example, a carbon tax of about $25 per ton of CO2—which would add 22 cents to a gallon of gasoline—could bring in about 1 percent of GDP, or over $1 trillion over a decade. And, as discussed in an IMF-World Bank report for the G-20 last year, charges on international aviation and maritime emissions could meet about a quarter of the commitment developed countries have made to mobilize $100 billion a year for climate finance by 2020.

Second, appropriately targeted fiscal instruments are, by far, the most effective way to exploit opportunities to reduce environmental harm across all sectors of the economy. Environmental taxes also galvanize clean technology development and deployment by the private sector—such as investments in energy efficiency and renewables. Recent empirical work at the Fund has confirmed this.

Our road ahead

But at present we are only at base camp in getting the prices right.

Over 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions remain unpriced, only a handful of cities have begun to experiment with policies charge for the use of gridlocked roads, and worldwide farmers are not charged for the marginal costs of (increasingly scarce) water resources. And in fact, many countries continue to subsidize, rather than tax, fossil fuels, even though these subsidies may do very little to help the poorest members of society who do not have cars or access to electricity.

As we push for pricing reform however, we need to think carefully about how vulnerable groups might be helped, for instance by strengthening social safety nets, or tightly focusing subsidies on products used by poorer groups.

We can and must do better. We can all be a part of the solution—rich nations and poor nations; economists, environmentalists, and social policymakers; public sector, private sector, civil society, and international organizations. We must all come together and work together.

For in the end, we all share the same goal—to make this small planet we call our home a better place for this generation and for generations to come.

2017-04-15T14:06:59-05:00June 19, 2012|


  1. Angus Cunningham June 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    “As we push for pricing reform however, we need to think carefully about how vulnerable groups might be helped, for instance by strengthening social safety nets, or tightly focusing subsidies on products used by poorer groups.”

    Missing in this initiating post is any recognition that luxury is energy intensive and therefore unnecessarily harmful to the ecology of the planet that this post advocates we share.

  2. George Naumovski June 21, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Paying the price either with your money or with future generations.

    If there are no incentives, no investments then there would be no change in the way we do things!

    As much as it would be unpopular, be it through a carbon tax or ETS, these reforms and polices to put a price on pollution need to be started because the more you say “next year and the year after that” the worse and harder it will get to start and nothing will happen.

    I truly believe that we need to change the way we do things and that a tax/ETS is just a bandaid solution and a permanent solution needs to be implemented and that is Fusion technologies!

  3. Per Kurowski June 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    @Min Zhu “we cannot ignore the extensive human suffering and the misallocation of resources that leads us down the wrong path”

    And the misallocation of resources can just as well occur by favoring too much green investments.

    In this respect, what I have found amazing is how often those most concerned with the environment seem to be the least concerned with the fact that scarce resources are used as effectively as possible to help the environment. It should be the opposite?

    Helping to save the environment is a road we must travel on, but it is a treacherous road. In Europe gasoline (petrol) taxes are often argued out of environmental concern, and then revenues used to subsidize their coal mining.

  4. Angus Cunningham June 22, 2012 at 10:17 am

    “In Europe gasoline (petrol) taxes are often argued out of environmental concern, and then revenues used to subsidize their coal mining.”

    What the left hand didn’t know the right hand was doing is a problem often found in government. The executive head of state is frequently blamed for this happening. Sometimes he or she merits being so blamed. But the same problem very often, if not invariably, arises with his or her replacement so obviously that doesn’t actually solve this problem. IOW, we have to look deeper if we want this problem to be resolved. And it turns out that the problem is a psycho-linguistic one.

    When a person habitually uses, as 99.99% of English speakers do, I-statements of the form “I am ‘X adjectival phrase” (IAXAP), such as “I am a coal miner”, or such as “I am an environmentalist”, few are consciously aware that he or she is ignoring a large part of his or her true identity, which is that of a human being. Such statements are made so commonly in many languages that they are taken as perfectly normal.

    But that norm is not a good one, because IAXAPs are, in truth, politically motivated statements which allow us to forget for a convenient moment something that is very critical to the healthy functioning of the society of which we all are members: we actually are, all of us, whether we like it or not, members of the species known as human beings.

    A more thorough solution to this problem can be found in changing the form of I-statement we customarily use to “I have ‘X emotion’ now” (IHXEN), where ‘X emotion’ is limited to a noun or noun phrase. Using IHXENs as our customary form of revealing ourselves to each other we do not forget our membership in humanity as we do when we use IAXAPs.

    Changing our customary form of I-statement to IHXENs requires practice, but my clients have found that doing so pays off handsomely. Readers of this blog can ascertain just how handsomely from a URL where a case narrative of what happened when the leaders of an organization actually did make this change in their psycho-linguistic habits:

  5. Olusegun Victor Omoyefa June 23, 2012 at 2:31 am

    The policy is good since it will go a long way in fostering {1} Reduction in climatic damage {2} Generation of revenue {3 }Clean Technological Practice {4} Cataring for the marginalised and vulnerable economy; hence it’s a very welcom development but we need to be mindful of the effect of tax exertion on firms. Therefore, there should be adequate measures in terms of regulation policy in order not to aggravate another problem in the course of solving one.

  6. Javed Mir June 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Sustainable economic growth requires use of the natural resources. There are consequent challenges like climate changes, biodiversity protection and global desertification. Mother Earth provides us so much and in return it is our duty to protect its regenerative capacity.

    The Earth Summit was held in 1992 and during the last twenty years till the holding of RIO+20 nothing concrete could be done because of paucity of funds. Now the IMF can assist the industrial nations by offering the financial instruments as explained by Min Zhu, all the 188 countries should contribute to this effort to save this planet from the killing pollution. Let us be generous towards the future by making some sacrifice in the present.

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