A Utilitarian Approach to Global Climate Policy Improves Equity, Environment, and Well-being

September 16, 2021

An approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that is informed by the ethical theory of utilitarianism would lead to better outcomes for human development, equity, and the climate, according to a new article co-authored by Berkeley Researchers.

The study, published September 13th in Nature Climate Change, proposes a practical way of measuring how different nations should reduce carbon emissions in order to maximize well being in the world. Co-authors include David Anthoff, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) and Frank Errickson, PHD ’20, ERG, now a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University.

"Designing equitable climate policy is not just an economic question, but also touches on questions in philosophy and the natural sciences,” said Anthoff. “For this paper we assembled an author team of economists, philosophers and climate scientists to propose a climate policy framework that treats economics, climate science and ethics in a coherent framework to develop a proposal for an equitable climate policy".

“Utilitarianism tells us to care about everyone’s well-being, and to care just the same about each of us” says co-author Dean Spears, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin. “When we do that, we learn that tackling climate change requires different ambitions of different countries, because countries around the world start from different places with different resources.”

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

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

The researchers say the utilitarian approach corrects an important structural bias within policy analysis by focusing on wellbeing impacts and not just on 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 ignore the importance of vast inequalities in income throughout the world,” said Mark Budolfson, a study co-author and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Measurements based only on dollars do not consider that a dollar sacrificed by a poor country subtracts more wellbeing than a dollar sacrificed by a wealthier country.”

The research team used a computer model to solve for the distribution of emissions reductions across the world that would maximize well-being, weighing the interests of every citizen of the world equally. In this sense, their method has a straightforward utilitarian goal and a straightforward utilitarian concept of equity at its core, together with estimates of impacts that focus on well-being rather than simply dollars of GDP. The authors take into account not only the well-being impacts of direct harms from climate change, but also the well-being impacts of the costs of reducing emissions.

The researchers propose assigning different carbon emission reduction goals to different nations, based on the country’s wealth and ability to grow and maintain their citizen’s health and well-being. Their utilitarian benchmark creates an equitable model that reallocates emissions constraints and allows poorer regions the opportunity to continue economic development.

Read more in the press release from Rutgers University.